Piscataway, N.J. — Michigan was looking to do something no team has done so far this season: Beat Rutgers at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Seventeen squads had tried. Seventeen had failed.
Michigan bucked the trend and used a strong second-half effort to become the first team to break through with a 60-52 victory on Wednesday.
"(This win) shows a lot,” said sophomore forward Colin Castleton, who provided a boost with five points and four rebounds off the bench.
“I think a big word we were touching on and talked about was grit. Just coming in here with our backs against the wall. They were 17-0 (at home), but we knew we could get the job done. We had the confidence that we could come in here and secure the 'W.' We did just that."
Senior guard Zavier Simpson led the way with 16 points and six rebounds for Michigan, which shot 44.7% (21-for-47) from the field and made timely 3-pointers despite finishing 26.1% (6-for-23) from beyond the arc.
Freshman wing Franz Wagner added 12 points and sophomore guard David DeJulius scored 10 as the Wolverines (17-9, 8-7 Big Ten) kept rolling. They’ve won four straight and six of seven as they continued their late-season push.
Even more impressive was that Wednesday’s victory came without junior forward Isaiah Livers, who was wearing a walking boot on his right foot and was sidelined with an ankle injury. It was the 10th game this season Livers has missed.
“Obviously we would've loved to have Isaiah. But at the same time, we're playing against Rutgers, a team hasn't lost a home game this season,” said Simpson, who joined Antoine Joubert (1984-87), Gary Grant (1985-88) and Rumeal Robinson (1988-90) as the only Wolverines to record 1,000 points and 500 assists in a career.
“We've got to have a next-man-up mentality. We can't think, ‘If we have Isaiah we can do this, we can spread the court out more, he can make shots for us.’ We’ve got to have next-man-up mentality."
Junior guard Geo Baker finished with 16 points, sophomore wing Ron Harper Jr. scored 13 and senior forward Akwasi Yeboah had 10 for Rutgers (18-9, 9-7), which fell to 0-13 against Michigan.
The Scarlet Knights shot 34.9% (22-for-63) for the game but shot just 23.5% (8-for-34) in the second half and missed all 10 of their 3-point attempts after halftime.
That rough shooting came after the Scarlet Knights used an 11-0 run over the first and second halves to build a 37-28 lead and seemingly put the Wolverines on their heels with 17:40 to go.
Michigan didn’t blink and found a way to stay close even though its 3-pointers weren’t falling. Castleton snapped the run with an and-one layup. Wagner got an offensive tip-in off a turnover. Simpson split two free throws after another Rutgers turnover. DeJulius knocked down a jumper to cut it to 37-36 with 15:01 to go.
That started a 17-4 run that saw the Wolverines pull within one twice more before DeJulius hit a floater in the lane and buried a corner 3-pointer — snapping a string of nine straight long-range misses — to put them back in front, 45-41, with 9:14 to play.
Michigan’s defense held Rutgers without a field goal for nearly seven minutes before Yeboah broke the drought with a layup to make it 47-44 at the 6:33 mark. But that’s as close as the Scarlet Knights would get as they ended up missing 19 of their final 23 shot attempts.
"Sometimes winning ugly on the road is beautiful as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You have to have a group that's connected and a group that's playing defense. Tonight, I think that's what really helped us was our defensive energy.”
A 3-pointer from Wagner and two free throws from DeJulius extended the lead to 52-44. Junior guard Eli Brooks added to it with another 3-pointer to make it 55-46 with 3:25 to go.
Rutgers could only cut it to six with 1:13 remaining before the Wolverines were able to finish it off and hand the Scarlet Knights their first home loss of the season.
"I loved our effort. I thought we played our tails off,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “But when you're playing an elite team with an elite point guard … they’ve got shooters around them and they’ve got good size. You just have to play better than that and you have to put the ball in the basket. We just had one of those nights where the ball wasn't going in.”
In the first meeting between the teams — a 69-63 Michigan win on Feb. 1 at New York’s Madison Square Garden — Rutgers chased Simpson over ball screens and he carved the Scarlet Knights up with his passing as Michigan’s offense hummed along.
This time around, Rutgers sagged beneath screens and Simpson made them pay. He hit a pair of wide-open 3-pointers as Michigan was clicking and raced out to a 16-8 lead with 13:03 left in the first half.
Unlike the first encounter though — when Rutgers shot a season-low 32.5% — the Scarlet Knights didn’t struggle to hit shots early. Harper buried a 3-pointer to cap a 10-2 run and put Rutgers ahead, 22-21, at the 7:05 mark.
Senior center Jon Teske immediately responded with a pick-and-pop 3-pointer — his first made deep ball since the first game against Rutgers — to quiet the rowdy crowd and put Michigan back on top.
Down the stretch, Michigan’s depth was tested as sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and DeJulius each picked up two fouls and sat the final five minutes of the half.
The Wolverines were able to navigate the foul issues behind Simpson, who continued to shoulder the load. He knifed his way to the basket for two layups before Baker beat the halftime buzzer with a deep 3-pointer to give Rutgers a 31-28 edge at the break.
But unlike earlier in the season, the Wolverines were able to pull through on the road as they won their fourth straight game away from Crisler Center.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in this group experiencing what we experienced in the beginning of the season where we did struggle (on the road). We were trying to find ourselves,” Howard said. “There were times where offensively the ball wouldn't fall. We kept going back to film and seeing what areas we can improve on.
“Each and every guy in that locker room on this team has always been positive about the process. And now we're improving. Our guys did an amazing job of just staying locked in the moment and trying to figure it out.”