ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Michigan rediscovered its shooting touch late, took care of business from the free-throw line and walked away with the victory it was always expected to get, albeit not as lopsided as the lines in Las Vegas predicted.
Minnesota’s perceived improvement, meanwhile, again went without reward, falling 74-69 at Crisler Center on Wednesday after battling with an opponent favored by 16.5 points.
“I think we’re now starting to show what we can become,” mostly buoyant Gophers coach Richard Pitino said afterward. “We couldn’t say that early in the Big Ten season. I think we can now say over the last two games that we’re close. We’re not about moral victories, but we liked our effort.”
The Gophers (6-13, 0-7 Big Ten), harnessing a second wind in the second half, crawled within three points at 50-47 with 10:37 to go. They were still lingering within 52-49 with 8:52 left.
But the Wolverines, uncharacteristically missing shots throughout most of the second, responded by drilling back-to-back three-pointers — from Aubrey Dawkins and Derrick Walton Jr. — to lift Michigan back up by nine and effectively stifle the Gophers’ last surge.
“It was just that one stop we couldn’t get,” said freshman forward Jordan Murphy, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. “Either they’d get a wide-open three or a contested three and they would just make it.”
Minnesota has lost its past eight games, 11 of its past 12, and has gone winless in the past eight games against Michigan (14-5, 4-2). The Gophers haven’t started Big Ten play 0-7 since 2003-04, when they lost their first nine.
Still, the Gophers showed positive signs for the second consecutive game after hitting what looked like rock bottom, losing the previous two — to Northwestern and Nebraska — by a combined 50 points. Including Saturday’s 70-63 loss at home to Indiana, the Gophers have dropped the past two games by a total of 12 points.
“That team you saw tonight was one that is up and coming,” Murphy said. “… That team you saw has a lot of fight and a lot of heart, and that’s what we’ve got to keep growing on.”
The Gophers trailed only 37-30 at the break despite foul trouble and six three-pointers from Michigan. The Wolverines had padded their advantage to 15 at 37-22 with 1:56 left until halftime when the Gophers’ stagnant offense sprung from its cocoon. Senior guard Carlos Morris (14 points, nine rebounds) hit back-to-back three-pointers and Murphy converted a layup on his first possession back to pull Minnesota within seven.
In the second half, the Gophers found new life on defense and on the boards, and aggressive drives from Morris and Nate Mason (a game-high 25 points, five assists) kept them in the game. Minnesota outscored the Wolverines by 16 points in the paint, outrebounded them 21-18 and held Michigan to 31 percent shooting in the second half while connecting on 46.9 percent from the field themselves.
Mason had a chance to cut the lead within striking distance when Minnesota, down 66-59, had the ball with 39 seconds left. But Duncan Robinson swiped the ball from Mason and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a pair of free throws on the other end to all but seal the victory.
“Everyone is just coming out here and playing as hard as we can possibly play,” Mason said. “We’re just trying to take a step forward.”