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January 2, 2014

Michigan shows grit in critical Big Ten opening win

"It looks like Big Ten basketball is back."

Michigan head coach John Beilein's opening statement following U-M's gutsy, 63-60 win at Minnesota - the Wolverines' third straight road win over the Gophers and fifth straight overall - summed up what it will take to win in conference play: finding sometimes uncharacteristic ways to win.

In this case it was two teams who regularly score 80 or 90 points per game trading blows in a low scoring slugfest, a "whatever it takes" mentality teams need to win in the Big Ten.

Michigan, shorthanded now without sophomore Mitch McGary, would need a lot to fall into place to contend this year, but the Wolverines showed Thursday they're not going to be an easy out. They rallied when sophomore Glenn Robinson III went down with an ankle injury and missed the second half, several others playing their best ball of the year to pull out the win.

"We're thrilled to be able to make enough shots, get guys off the bench to just make enough shots to come out with a win," Beilein said. "It says a lot for what our coaching staff preaches all the time, that everybody's got to be ready all the time."

Freshman Zak Irvin did his Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson impression in hitting five triples in eight attempts. Though not a one-dimensional player, Irvin has made his mark in the early going a a long distance sniper.

"Zak Irvin has practiced for that opportunity," Beilein said. "We rarely took him out after that. We lose some rebounding, experience [with Glenn], but Zak came in and made shots."

Derrick Walton, Jr. played one of his better games after a shaky start, handling Minnesota's pressure and turning it over only once against four assists. He also hit a key triple in the second half and four free throws.

Redshirt junior Jon Horford, meanwhile, stepped up when starter Jordan Morgan left with foul trouble, notching 14 points and nine rebounds and converting big shot after big shot in the second half. He still missed a couple of bunnies, but he played solid defense, too, in perhaps his best all-around game in a Michigan uniform when his team needed him most.

"He has really worked so hard," Beilein said. "He's battled through foul trouble, injuries, just looking for playing time and to find [what Bacari Alexander calls smooth air], an elevation where he can play. He made some really nice plays, a jump shot he can bury all day long but for some reason he has been hesitating in games. I hope you'll see more of that.

"He eats right, trains right, he's in the gym all the time. I couldn't be happier for any player I've coached. To have him finally get him out there and play, not looking at the bench or an official because he's in foul trouble … many times officials try to set the tone early by calling an early foul, and it always seems to be him for some reason. Maybe we just let somebody else get that foul, not necessarily Jordan, then bring him off the bench after he sees how the game is being called."

With Robinson out, Beilein turned to Nik Stauskas to pick up the slack. Most touches went through the sophomore, and he responded with 14 points and seven assists. He made only one of four triples, but his vision was on display and he made 7-of-8 free throws to keep U-M a step ahead down the stretch.

"He's getting better and better," Beilein said. "He made the right play. We've got checkdowns you've got to look at, and his assists numbers right now were really good for a swingman, an off guard, small forward. He was really good. With his height he can see over that sometimes where Derrick and Spike [Albrecht] can't."

After the five bad turnovers, the Wolverines settled down and finished with only 10 against 16 assists. Robinson will be evaluated today to see where he stands for Sunday's game with Northwestern, but U-M proved it could win in a hostile environment without him by rallying together with one goal in mind.

"We don't even think about who isn't there. We're just trying to find a way to win with who's there," Beilein said. "I don't think about who don't we have. We think about who we have, and so it was a great game."

One that could set the tone for a team still learning how to win together, but that took a giant leap in its opener.

Notes

Beilein was unsure of Robinson's status for Sunday's game with the Wildcats.

"He did something to his ankle, we're not sure what it is, but he tried to run down in the hallway, in the media timeout," Beilein said. "He couldn't do it, so why make it worse?

"He tried to run on it. It just bothered him. With a two-day prep, we've got a lot of work to do to get him rehabbed and back for Sunday."


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