Michigan holds off Rutgers' runs to claim 'special' victory at Madison Square Garden
New York — Madison Square Garden has been like a home away from home for Michigan.
Not even an invasion of loud and rowdy red-clad Rutgers fans could change that fact.
Behind a career game from sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., a solid defensive effort and several clutch free throws, the Wolverines continued their success in the Big Apple with a 69-63 win over the No. 25 Scarlet Knights on Saturday.
Johns finished with 20 points — 15 coming in the first half — for Michigan (13-8, 4-6 Big Ten), which has won two straight for the first time since December and remained unbeaten against Rutgers.
The Wolverines have also won 10 straight games at the iconic venue and improved to 4-0 on neutral courts this season, though Michigan was the home team for the matchup and gave up a contest at Crisler Center as a result.
"To get a win here is special,” said senior center Jon Teske, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. “Any time you're able to play here, it's an experience of a lifetime. Zavier (Simpson) and I, we've played here before.
“But for the younger guys coming in and experiencing this — that crowd going back and forth, it's like a tournament game out there. I'm just happy we came out on top.”
While there was more red than maize in the stands, the Michigan faithful were the ones cheering after halftime. The Wolverines built a 14-point lead midway through the second half and kept Rutgers at bay until the Scarlet Knights made a late push.
Rutgers cut the deficit to 63-60 on a basket by Jacob Young (10 points) with 27 seconds remaining. Senior guard Zavier Simpson was promptly fouled and calmly sank two free throws to make it a five-point game.
Rutgers (16-6, 7-4) came right back down and closed within two when Geo Baker hit a 3-pointer with 19 seconds to go. But after freshman wing Franz Wagner made both free throws, Simpson came up with a steal and knocked down two more free throws to improve Michigan’s record to 12-0 against Rutgers.
“It was great that our guys stepped up there and knocked down some shots that we needed to knock down,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We stayed with it during when Rutgers was making a run. It was mental stability on all levels. Give our guys a lot of credit on the fact that they have been working extremely hard, staying together when teams are making runs. We stayed poised and kept that mental stability that we always talk about as a group.”
Wagner finished with 10 points and Simpson finished with nine points and 10 assists in his return from a one-game suspension. The Wolverines shot 46.8% (22-for-47) from the field and 47.4% (9-for-19) from 3-point range while playing their second straight game without junior forward Isaiah Livers (lower body injury).
Rutgers shot a season-low 32.5% (27-for-83) from the field but managed to hang around by crashing the glass and attempting 36 more shots. The Scarlet Knights turned 26 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points and committed six fewer turnovers (10) than the Wolverines.
"We obviously have to shoot the ball better in a game like that against a really good team,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said.
"I thought we had some decent looks. We got down and clawed back. We obviously rebounded. The effort was great. We haven't had many nights that we just didn't shoot the ball well. I thought some balls were in and out that some guys usually make. That happens in basketball. You've still got to figure out a way to win.”
Rutgers made shots early and grabbed a five-point lead before Michigan got hot from 3-point range to ignite a 20-5 run over a 10-minute stretch in the first half.
The Wolverines made four 3-pointers in the first seven minutes, the last three coming in succession from Johns and junior guard Eli Brooks (nine points) that started the flurry with nine unanswered points.
By the time it was over, Johns added a third 3-pointer and Teske put a Rutgers defender on a poster with a dunk to make it 24-14 with 7:17 left in the half.
During the run, the Wolverines held Rutgers without a point for over five minutes until it made a pair of free throws. The Scarlet Knights also went over eight minutes between made field goals before Ron Harper Jr. bounced in a 3-pointer at the 7:06 mark.
Rutgers cashed in on turnovers and made five first-half 3-pointers to chip away at the deficit before Johns’ tip-in off a missed free throw at the buzzer gave Michigan a 37-34 advantage at the break.
A little over two minutes into the second half, a steal and layup by Montez Mathis (17 points) gave the Scarlet Knights a 38-37 lead, their first since the first five minutes of the game.
It didn't take long for the Wolverines to regain control. Johns capped a 9-0 spurt with a corner 3-pointer to make it 46-38. Teske threw down another monster dunk to put Michigan up 60-46 with 9:17 to go.
Then after Scarlet Knights cut the deficit to six, Brooks responded with a 3-pointer and drew a charge during a critical swing before Michigan staved off Rutgers' late rally.
"We're truly growing game by game,” Howard said. “We stayed with it and it was a grind. … We lost a game at the buzzer (to Illinois). That was a grind, but you learn how to win games where you get down during the last two minutes and find a way to gut through it.”