'Stay hungry': Wolverines acting coach Martelli wins debut vs. Scarlet Knights

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Before Wednesday’s game against Rutgers, Michigan's basketball players received a text from a familiar contact: head coach Juwan Howard.

The message?

“Don't let none of the distractions outside bother our game,” grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “Do what we do. Stay hungry, stay aggressive.”

Behind a decisive second-half run, the shorthanded Wolverines kicked off a four-game homestand with a 71-62 victory over the Scarlet Knights and won without Howard as he started a five-game suspension for striking a Wisconsin assistant this past weekend.

“The main goal was win for (Howard),” said Jones, who finished with 14 points. “I think it fueled all of us.

“It was a team effort. We've got a great group in there and a lot of the guys are mentally strong. Coach (Phil) Martelli, coach (Saddi) Washington and coach Howard Eisley did a great job of telling us to stay levelheaded, focus on the task and that's what we did.”

BOX SCORE: Michigan 71, Rutgers 62

Freshman forward Caleb Houstan made five 3-pointers and scored a season-high 21 points and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson had 16 points and 11 rebounds for Michigan (15-11, 9-7 Big Ten), which was also without starting forward Moussa Diabate and reserve forward Terrance Williams II.

Fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks added 11 points to help give Martelli, Howard's top assistant who is the acting head coach, the victory in his debut.

Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy (4) looks to pass as Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) defends during the first half.

Following a tight first half, the Wolverines kept fending off the Scarlet Knights before their big spurt. After Rutgers pulled within one two times early in the second half, Jones twice countered with a layup. Then after Rutgers tied it at 38 at the 16:12 mark, Houstan buried back-to-back 3-pointers within a 25-second span to make it a six-point game.

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The Scarlet Knights kept hanging around, using a three-point play from Ron Harper Jr. to cut it to 48-45 with 12:02 left, until the Wolverines broke the game open with an 11-0 surge and built a 14-point lead that wasn't seriously threatened the rest of the way.

Brooks kicked it off with back-to-back baskets in the lane. Freshman guard Kobe Bufkin splashed a 3-pointer. Freshman guard Frankie Collins took an outlet pass and scored in transition with a nifty layup. After a Rutgers timeout, Bufkin scored at the rim to cap the spurt and give Michigan a 59-45 lead with 8:50 to go.

"They got on a run there, they got into the lane and we talked about that," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "It snowballs on you on the road like this. You can't have stretches like this. … Both ends of the floor hurt us. I thought we were a step slow on both ends of the floor."

After Rutgers’ Geo Baker snapped the run with two free throws, Michigan kept trading baskets and prevented the lead from dipping below 10 points. By the time Rutgers managed to cut it to single digits on a dunk from Clifford Omoruyi with 1:13 remaining, it was too little, too late.

“When I spoke to Juwan Howard last night, he said, 'I feel fine. I have the best coaching staff in America,'” said Martelli, who noted his stomach was “a mess” all day leading up to the game. “That (win) was Saddi Washington and Howard Eisley and then those young guys. Before they went on the court, I asked them to play hard, to play smart and to play together. They were connected, 15 strong.

“Everybody did their thing and not just for these 40 minutes, but the last 72 hours.”

Harper finished with 19 points and Omoruyi scored 17 for Rutgers (16-11, 10-7), which entered the matchup on a roll with four wins over ranked teams in its past five games.

Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) drives on Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) during the first half on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Rutgers beat Michigan for the first time in program history on Jan. 4 when the Wolverines had several bench players unavailable due to positive COVID-19 tests. Michigan wasn’t at full strength once again on Wednesday, with Diabate and Williams serving one-game suspensions for their involvement in Sunday’s postgame incident.

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Down several key pieces, the Wolverines rose to the challenge and leaned on Jones, Houstan and Dickinson from the start. Jones knifed his way into the lane and finished at the rim. Houstan buried a pair of 3-pointers. Dickinson threw down a one-handed slam off a pick-and-roll feed from Houstan as the trio teamed up to give the Wolverines a 20-14 lead with 10:23 left in the first half.

With a lack of frontcourt depth with Diabate and Williams unavailable, Michigan had to turn to smaller lineups and unique combinations at times. The Wolverines were able to navigate those stretches but the Scarlet Knights stayed close by getting to the basket.

After Dickinson knocked down a jumper to put Michigan up six at the 5:32 mark, the Wolverines couldn’t extend the lead as they committed eight turnovers in the first half and went scoreless over the final three minutes.

Still, Michigan held a 32-30 edge at the break before it pulled away from a gritty Rutgers squad, prevailed in its first game without its head coach and took a step in the right direction.

“We're definitely a resilient group,” Houstan said. “What happened at Wisconsin was unfortunate. But no one is going to feel bad for us because that happened and we have our coach out, we have a couple players out.

“We knew Rutgers didn't care that we had people out, our coach out. We had to come in here and we had to go get a win. That's what we did, and we're going to continue to do that for the rest of the season.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins