By: Jack Molino and Teddy Gutkin
The Wolverines struggled to get going on offense in the first half, shooting 31% from the field after hitting 5 of their first 6 shots. Star forward Moe Wagner was particularly ineffective, scoring just one point and missing all seven of his shot attempts from the field.
The second half, however, was a different story. Wagner and senior G Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman combined to score Michigan’s first ten points, which helped give Michigan a lead that they never relinquished. The second half also saw the Wolverines recapture their stroke from the three-point line, knocking down 5 of their 7 attempts after halftime.
“All of a sudden a few [shots] went in for us and Moe got going a little bit,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said when discussing his team’s impressive second half.
Wagner, who ended up finishing with 15 points and 8 rebounds, said that his approach on the offensive end remained unchanged despite his slow start.
“You just keep playing,” Wagner said. “When you're confident as a team you just let the game come to you and that's just how it goes.”
The game felt close for much of the second half. The Spartans managed to cut Michigan’s lead to five with just under three minutes remaining. However, Abdur-Rahkman, much like he has all season long, came through with a clutch shot to seal the upset. After recovering a loose ball late in the shot clock, Abdur-Rahkman hoisted a long contested three that hit off the back of the rim before falling to give the Wolverines an eight-point edge with 2:50 left.
“I think the play broke down a little bit and I was dribbling at the top of the key and saw the shot clock was running down,” said Abdur-Rahkman, who scored 15 points on 6-11 shooting. “And I knew I had to take a shot.”
“That was a brick,” Beilein joked, referring to Abdur-Rahkman’s lucky roll.
After Abdur-Rahkman’s big three, Michigan put the game away at the foul line. Despite being a notoriously poor free throw shooting team, the Wolverines knocked down 11 of their 15 free throws down the stretch to deny the Spartans a chance at an outright Big Ten championship.
Zavier Simpson, one of the team’s weakest free throw shooters, was 6-8 from the charity stripe, including 5-6 during the final stretch. Simpson scored 13 points in all and held Michigan State star Cassius Winston to just 11 points on 3-10 shooting.
“It was a sweet sight to see Zavier's shots just go right through the middle,” Beilein said.
Michigan State, the #1 overall seed in the tournament, won 13 straight games before losing to Michigan on Saturday afternoon in the Garden. Their most recent loss also came to Michigan. Both losses were by double digits.
When asked about about this Michigan team, Coach Tom Izzo noted the improved defense. “I think they're a little tougher, personally. I think Matthews is a great athlete that prides himself on guarding. And Simpson 100 percent prides himself on his defense...I think the young freshman, Livers, I thought does a pretty good job defending. I think they've got a couple of players that are better defensive players.”
Izzo is undoubtedly right about his analysis of this Michigan team. This is the highest defensive rating a Michigan team has had in the John Beilein era. Michigan was also excellent on the offensive end as well, especially when it mattered the most. Michigan was 5-7 from deep and 20-27 from the line in the second half, a huge improvement since their mid-season slump. Michigan’s hot hand in the second half mixed with Michigan State’s star-player Miles Bridges fouling out ultimately were the deciding factors in this one.
This early out for Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament is not the end of the road for the Spartans in March. It is tough to bounce back from early departures in the Big Ten Tournament and come out ready to play in the NCAA Tournament, but Tom Izzo’s teams have done it plenty of times in the past. In 2009, they were the #1 overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament and lost to a #5 seed in the semifinal. They went on to make the National Championship against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan will now wait to see who their opponent will be in tomorrow’s championship. No matter what happens tomorrow, the Wolverines have proven today that they deserve to be in the conversation as one of college basketball’s elite programs, and they should be one of the most dangerous teams in March once the NCAA Tournament gets underway.
Moe Wagner (15 points, 8 rebounds, 4-14 FG)
Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15 points, 3 assists, 6-11 FG, 3-6 3PT)
Miles Bridges (17 points, 7 rebounds, 7-18 FG, 3-7 3PT)