No. 3 Michigan handles Rutgers ahead of top-five showdown

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Wolverines were looking to maintain their momentum heading into this weekend’s top-five showdown.

They leaned on their unrelenting defense to make sure it happened.

No. 3 Michigan brushed off a rough start and a second-half dry spell to continue its dominance at home and over Rutgers with a 71-64 victory Thursday night at Crisler Center.

And if the Wolverines were looking ahead to Sunday’s matchup against No. 4 Ohio State, it certainly didn’t show.

BOX SCORE: No. 3 Michigan 71, Rutgers 64

“The only big game that we had coming up was Rutgers and Rutgers is who we were focused in on,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They were expecting to come in here and beat us. We knew that they were going to come out with a lot of energy from start to finish.

"Our defense was great. I looked at box score and saw Rutgers shot 40% from the field and 25% from 3. That was a damn good job defensively."

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) and center Hunter Dickinson (1) defend Rutgers guard Geo Baker (0) in the first half on Thursday.

Sophomore wing Franz Wagner led the way with 20 points for Michigan (15-1, 10-1 Big Ten), which improved to 14-0 all-time against Rutgers and is off to its best start in Big Ten play since the 1976-77 season. Grad transfer guard Mike Smith added 12 points and freshman center Hunter Dickinson had 10 points and eight rebounds.

After taking a nine-point lead into the break, Michigan widened the gap and picked apart Rutgers during a 13-4 run. Dickinson threw down a dunk off a feed from Wagner and senior forward Isaiah Livers buried a jumper before Wagner took over with his scoring, passing and vision. He knocked down an open 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to make it 50-34 with 13:49 remaining.

Wagner followed that with a driving layup and another drive and dish to Dickinson, pushing Michigan’s lead to 54-37 less than two minutes later and putting the Wolverines on the verge of coasting to another lopsided win.

That was until Michigan hit a rough patch where it went over five minutes without scoring and nearly seven minutes between made field goals. Still, Rutgers struggled to crack Michigan’s stout defense and could only trim the deficit to 12 before Livers ended the dry spell with a free throw and Smith made a driving layup to make it 59-45 with 5:08 left.

“We take pride in our defense,” Smith said. “Obviously when ball is not going in, if you can get a stop, who cares. If we're up at the time, it doesn't matter if we keep getting stops. The game is going to end with us on top. We want to score but sometimes the ball won't go in. But if we get stops, we'll be fine."

Rutgers turned up the defensive pressure and managed to cut it to single digits, 63-55, with 1:51 to go but never got closer than that until the closing seconds. Wagner hit a dagger 3-pointer in the final minute and the Wolverines sealed their fourth straight win at the free-throw line.

Jacob Young scored 16, Myles Johnson 13, Ron Harper Jr. 12 and Caleb McConnell 10 for Rutgers (12-8, 8-8), which shot 40.3% from the field (25-for-62) and 25% from 3-point range (3-for-12). The Scarlet Knights were outrebounded 40-27 and outscored 18-5 in second-chance points.

“That Michigan team is for real,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “I thought our effort was great. I thought we played really hard from start to finish. We've just got to make shots in a game like that.

“We missed a lot of layups, some opportune layups that could've changed things. I thought we had some good looks that could've made it a little interesting, but that's as good a team as I've played in my five years here as a coach in this league.”

The matchup pitted a pair of tough and physical defensive units, and that was on display from the tip. The Wolverines got off to a slow start with giveaways and disjointed possessions, while Scarlet Knights did their damage on tough mid-range shots to grab an 11-6 lead with 13:50 left in the first half.

Michigan eventually tightened things up and started to settle in. Behind a spark from the bench unit, the Wolverines rattled off a 13-2 run that Smith and junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. capped with back-to-back 3-pointers for a 22-15 lead at the 8:39 mark.

From there, the teams traded blows and Rutgers continued to hit enough contested jumpers to hang around until Wagner beat the buzzer with a difficult baseline floater to give Michigan a 37-28 advantage at the break.

With the Scarlet Knights taken care of, that sets the stage for Sunday’s contest in Columbus against the red-hot Buckeyes, who are riding a seven-game winning streak.

"To be honest with you, I'm still high on this Rutgers game,” Howard said. “I'm not even looking forward right now to Ohio State. I'll get to Ohio State tomorrow. Tonight, I'm going to enjoy this win. I think sometimes in sports, coaches are always trying to move on to the next, move on to the next (game). We need to enjoy this."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins