How was Michigan even in this game? After a hot start that saw the Wolverines race to an early 13-4 lead, Michigan State gathered itself, and on the strength of strong inside play, the Spartans outscored the Wolverines 25-13 over the final 16-plus minutes of the first half. Michigan’s leading scorer, Mo Wagner, had just one point on 0-7 shooting, the Wolverines went through two long scoring droughts and couldn’t keep the Spartans off the offensive glass. Michigan may have only been down three points, but the game seemed to be trending toward the bigger Spartans. In fact, it wasn’t a stretch to think that it was only a matter of time before the Spartans would pull away from the Wolverines.
But then a funny thing happened. A determined Michigan team came out of the locker room, quickly wrested the lead ... and never gave it up.
Michigan controlled the second half, rarely allowing the Spartans to come within two possessions of the lead. Contributions came from many. Zavier Simpsons played what might have been his best game as a Wolverine, tallying 15 points to go along with seven rebounds. As Simpson corralled rebound after rebound, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Derrick Walton Jr. was still running the show for Michigan. Wagner bounced back with 14 second-half points to go along with eight rebounds, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played his usual strong, all-around game and Duncan Robinson came up big in crunch time. But if there was a player who personified Michigan this day, it was Charles Matthews.
Michigan didn’t beat Michigan State because it overwhelmed the Spartans with a barrage of three-pointers, but rather because it attacked the Spartans offensively and played tough defense from buzzer-to-buzzer. This was especially true of Matthews. Matthews hit a couple of big threes early and finished with 12 points of his own, but made his biggest contribution on the defensive end of the floor. Matched up against Michigan State’s Miles Bridges much of the day, Matthews made Bridges work for his 17 points and often served as Michigan’s emotional leader. Matthews has had better nights statistically, but like Simpson, this may have been his performance in a Michigan uniform.
With the victory, Michigan advances to the Big Ten tournament championship game for the second consecutive season. And while last year’s Wolverines won the conference championship, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and came within a defensive rebound from reaching the Elite Eight, this year’s team is playing even better. It’s now won eight in a row, has handed Michigan State two of its four losses on the season and regardless of what happens against Purdue in today’s conference championship, looks to be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan is getting strong play from upperclassmen Rahkman, Wagner and Robinson and improving point guard play. But perhaps the biggest reason that Michigan is playing its best basketball of the season is that its playing the best defense of the Beilein era. Defense hasn’t exactly been the hallmark of most Beilein teams, but it is fast becoming the case for this one. And that’s something that will need to continue if Michigan hopes to defend its conference championship today against Purdue.