ANN ARBOR — There’s been a unique blend of chaos in many Penn State and Michigan’s meetings over the past eight years. Michigan has won nine of the last ten, but six of those wins came by single digits, some by as close as one basket. After twenty minutes on Thursday night, it appeared that would happen again, but in what is becoming the norm for the 2nd ranked Wolverines, a slow first half was made up for with a strong second half, as Michigan defeated Penn State 68-55 at Crisler Center.
“Penn State gives you defensive challenges that are tough for our team as we try to find out who we really are at different situations,” said John Beilein of his team’s slow start Thursday.
The first half of Thursday’s Big Ten battle was a clunker for both sides. Michigan’s offense could not find any rhythm, as it opened the game with five turnovers in seven minutes (Michigan finished the half with eight), and finished the opening 20 minutes shooting 2 for 11 from the field. It took nine minutes for the Wolverines to score on back-to-back possessions. Michigan managed to escape to the locker room with a 25-20 advantage because of Penn State’s trouble on the offensive end of the floor.
“I felt like they (Penn State) came out hungry in the first half, and we were too, but in the second half, we’re like damn, we are the number two team in the nation. We gotta keep proving that and we gotta be the more hungry team, tougher team out there,” reflected freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who logged his first career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. “We all play like we’re not number two in the nation. We play like we’re way back there like we have something to prove every single night, and that’s why we’re so good.”
The Wolverines offense arrived in the second half. Jon Teske and Brazdeikis helped set the tone with a quick 6-2 run to put Michigan up 31-22, and the Wolverines hardly looked back from there. 6-2 turned into 11-4, which turned into a deficit that Penn State’s offense could not close to less than 8. Michigan also played Thursday’s game without sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who was ruled out due to back spasms that have been affecting him for a few days. Beilein said Livers status is uncertain for Sunday’s game vs Indiana.
Michigan’s win Thursday was the Wolverines sixth in a row over Penn State, but coach Pat Chambers defense, the 25th ranked unit in the country per KenPom, kept the Nittany Lions in the game for the opening 20 minutes. Thursday’s game was the start of a five-game stretch for PSU that matches the Nittany Lions against five straight ranked opponents. PSU hosts No. 22 Wisconsin next then travels west to Lincoln to face No. 24 Nebraska. The Nittany Lions defense can keep them in games against opponents, but unbalanced offensive production will make the Big Ten slate a challenge for Chambers’ team.
“I really did enjoy this game and competing, I thought our team showed some real grit and incredible passion.” Commented Chambers after the loss, which dropped Penn State to 0-3 in the Big Ten. “We found a way, we got a stop, we started to see the ball go through the basket which I knew it was gonna be difficult to score on them… This was a road game against a top team in the Big Ten, lot of positives to walk away from.”
As for the Wolverines, they improved to 3-0 in Big Ten play and now look forward to hosting No. 21 Indiana Sunday afternoon (4:30p, CBS) in Michigan’s first game vs. a ranked opponent since hosting then-No. 19 Purdue on December 1st.
Thursday night’s game bore a similar resemblance to the last four games Michigan has played, but the Wolverines did enough to get to 14-0 and will look to find a consistent offensive rhythm as the team goes deeper into the season. The players say that the hunger and competitive fire they have is exhibited in practice, and is what carries them through games despite tough stretches like Thursday’s first half.
“When the scout team runs the other team’s plays (in practice), we think that the scout team is literally the other team. We match up; it’s not like oh it’s the scout team.” Replied Sophomore Jordan Poole (17 points) when asked about Michigan’s competitive hunger. “It will get gruesome; it’ll get grinding, we’re pushing people, fouling people, they gotta call tech’s in practice and stuff like that. We’re just trying to put ourselves in situations where it is extremely game-like.”
While showing that level of eagerness in practice is great to see from young players, getting overemotional can have its drawbacks according to Poole’s veteran coach. “That was a big thing in, sellout crowd again, gotta have composure in this game. We want to play with so much emotion, so much passion, but you can’t get emotionally drunk from it, you gotta stay in there,” Beilein said postgame about his team’s tough start. “We gotta make the right plays at the right times, that is what winning basketball looks like… We’ve been talking about it now for fourteen games, and we made similar mistakes that we made for all fourteen games.”
Despite being 14-0 and the 2nd ranked team in America, the Wolverines are a work in progress, but one that appears to have found a way to will itself to wins against every opponent and every style. That will be important come conference and NCAA tournament time, but for now, Beilein’s team is content to see just how far it can ride this wave of momentum and long winning streak while working to fix some lingering issues.