Walton's play in transition late sparked M's comeback. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
It wasn't impressive, or encouraging, or—at least for the first 30 minutes or so—fun, but Michigan pulled their proverbial asses out of the fire with a strong finish against Penn State, closing the game with a 30-15 run to erase a 14-point deficit and steal much-needed conference win.
"Their seniors made plays at the end," said PSU coach Pat Chambers.
"They got the stops when they needed," he added. "That's what senior-led teams do."
"Our seniors, who were not on their 'A' game, were nothing short of spectacular in the last four minutes," John Beilein concurred.
You, Michigan fan, may have cocked an eyebrow at those statements. For tonight, at least, they held true. While they struggled for most of the game, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton both came up big down the stretch. Walton nailed a three to pull Michigan within one, then fed DJ Wilson on a fast break for the go-ahead alley-oop. When PSU's Lamar Stevens grabbed the lead back with a jumper, Irvin answered with his pet midrange shot. Walton extended the lead at the free-throw line, Irvin drilled a tough stepback shot, and the two combined to ice the game at the line, going 6/6 in the waning moments to fend off PSU's comeback effort.
The game proved frustrating at times for both coaches. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
The Wolverines didn't open the game nearly as well as they closed it, of course. This was a boring slog for a half-hour of game time. Penn State got into the paint time and again, while Michigan couldn't do the same or hit their outside shots, going 1-for-9 from three-point range in the first half.
"They drove us wherever they wanted to in the first half," said John Beilein. "And we let them."
The second stanza began much the same way; PSU's first two buckets came in the paint before three straight triples extended the lead to 14. The turning point, according to Beilein, came during an emotional huddle at the under-12 media timeout.
"I didn't have to say anything," Beilein said. "It was all, the circle that I was in, they were all extremely charged up and upset at each other. And I'm not meaning pointing fingers [at each other], they were very encouraging, and very strong words that, no, we're not losing this game. We're not starting off in the league 0 and 2. We're going to make this happen."
Duncan Robinson entered the game shortly after that timeout and proceeded to account for a five-point run of his own with two shots to cut the deficit to eight. The Wolverines steadily chipped away at the lead from there, benefiting from some PSU turnovers to get out in transition for easy points. Then the seniors closed it out.
The season can take two forms from here. Michigan can carry the emotion from that huddle over to the rest of the Big Ten schedule and fight their way into the tournament, or they can play the listless brand of basketball we saw for much of this game and settle for an NIT bid. Only time will tell.