Photo via Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY Sports
It looked for all the world like a road loss. Zak Irvin, with just five made shots, led the team in scoring. Nik Stauskas finished just 3/7 from the field. Glenn Robinson III left the game early in the second half with an apparent ankle injury, finishing with six points. Caris LeVert played easily his worst game of the year. Michigan was outrebounded by a whopping 44.1% to 17.9% on the offensive glass. Oh, and Minnesota's last-gasp shot even caught the backboard.
Somehow, some way, the Wolverines clawed their way to a three-point win to open Big Ten play. Irvin's five three-pointers on eight attempts kept Michigan in the game after Robinson fell awkwardly following his fourth block of the night; while GRIII eventually returned from the locker room, he never re-entered the game. While Stauskas struggled from the field, he made play after play down the stretch, dishing out a game-high seven assists—including two in the waning minutes to set up Jon Horford dunks—and throwing down his signature "Game ... Blouses" dunk to give the team a late three-point lead.
With Jordan Morgan in early foul trouble and Mitch McGary spectating in a suit, Horford came up huge, scoring 14 points on 6/8 shooting and pulling down nine rebounds—five more than anyone else on the team—while adding in two steals and a block. While Horford made a few defensive errors guarding Elliott Eliason, who finished with ten points and ten rebounds, his tireless effort in the middle was the difference in this game.
Minnesota took advantage of Horford's occasional mishap and Robinson's absence on the interior, but they couldn't get it going on the perimeter, hitting just five of 19 three-point attempts. They had a tough time finding a clean look on the outside, and Michigan also forced 15 turnovers, eight of those steals.
The end of the game got a little nerve-wracking, to say the least, as the officials initially botched an out-of-bounds call—not to mention missing at least one obvious foul—when Minnesota tried to pressure Stauskas down three points with 22 seconds remaining. While Michigan got the ball back after a review, they ended up with Derrick Walton going to the line instead of Stauskas, and Walton missed both free throws. Fortunately for Michigan, the Gophers' Andre Hollins couldn't tie it up on the next possession, and a Horford free throw extended the lead to four.
Even then, the game wasn't quite over, as Stauskas committed the cardinal sin of fouling a jump shooter, stepping under Malik Smith on a wayward three-point attempt. Smith drilled all three freebies with six seconds remaining to make it a 61-60 game; after a pair of Stauskas free throws, the Gophers had one last chance to tie with five seconds to play. Deandre Mathieu managed to get a decent shot for the tie on the run at the top of the key; to the considerable relief of Wolverines with still-raw wounds from Evan Turner and Ben Brust, Mathieu's prayer wasn't answered.
It wasn't pretty, and there's lingering concern about Robinson's health to boot, but it's tough to overstate the importance of a conference road win for this team. Michigan is 1-0 in the Big Ten (and UNDEFEATED IN 2014) after a game in which the tired coachspeak platitude of "facing adversity" very much applied. Not a bad start to the new year.