ANN ARBOR, Michigan– Coming into the game, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (12-8) had never beaten the Michigan Wolverines (15-1) in any of their 13 all-time matchups. If they wanted that record to change, they were going to have to upend the Big Ten’s top team on their home floor. Doing that would take a stellar offensive output, as Michigan’s scoring defense gives up 64.9 points per game, which ranks 2nd in the Big Ten.
On Thursday, February 18, the defense for Michigan was on another level; they held Rutgers to just 40% shooting as Michigan defended the Crisler Center successfully, winning 71-64. Michigan did a tremendous job running the Rutgers shooters off the three-point line, holding them to just 25% from behind-the-arc.
For the offense, Franz Wagner was the leader for Michigan. His shot was falling all night; he finished with 20 points, shot 6-9 from the field, and shot 3-4 from three. Also logging 7 rebounds and 3 assists, Wagner was all over the court making plays. Following the game, Wagner said his team’s aggressiveness is a benefit to everyone, especially when the shots are falling.
“I just try to take what the defense gives me… I’m going to stay aggressive. I have been playing aggressive, I think, these past couple of games. I think that is very important when everybody does that, and it is definitely a lot more fun when shots fall,” said Wagner.
The win sets up Michigan with a huge matchup with Ohio State on Sunday to decide supremacy in the conference down the stretch. As it stands now, Michigan is on top of the Big Ten standings and ranked 3rd nationally. Meanwhile, Ohio State sits at third in the conference and is ranked 4th nationally. This puts an extra amount of emphasis on a matchup of one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports as both teams are projected 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Sound defense late helps hold off Rutgers comeback
After leading by 9 at halftime, Michigan came out of the gates firing; they used an 8-0 run over 5 minutes to extend the lead to 15. But Rutgers refused to go away; using some stellar defense of their own, they held Michigan without a field goal for over 5 minutes as they cut into the deficit. However, the drought would end with Michigan still holding a double-digit lead, as they held Rutgers to just 1-9 shooting over the same stretch.
Again, Rutgers fought back. This time, center Myles Johnson did it by himself, drawing back-to- back and-1 layups to bring the game to within single-digits for the first time since the 18:03 mark of the second half.
However, the deficit was just too much to overcome, especially with the way the defense was playing. They made every shot tough for Rutgers, whether it was from below-the-basket or from three. Isaiah Livers had an outstanding defensive night for the Wolverines, blocking 3 shots, grabbing 5 rebounds, and being an overall pest for his matchups. The effort was inspiring, as Livers struggled to find his shot on the night, but continued to work hard on the defensive end. Head coach Juwan Howard praised his senior leader after the game.
“Isaiah is a pure guy and he is built on winning. He would do whatever he can to help make winning plays for the team. He did a great job of protecting the basket on times when we thought the team had layups. He was extremely active in there, blocking shots, altering shots,” said Howard.
Balanced performance carries Wolverines’ offense
Michigan turned to a variety of guys on the offensive end, and the team delivered as a unit. Eight different Wolverines got on the scoreboard tonight while three scored in double figures. Wagner had the hot hand, but point guard Mike Smith was also effective on his scoring
opportunities. He finished with 12 points on 4-7 shooting and 1-2 from three. Smith said after the game that Coach Howard has told him to be more aggressive in getting his shots.
“Coach has also been encouraging me to be more aggressive. I think that will only help the team because if I can score more, that means everyone else is going to be open because more eyes are going to have to be on me,” said Smith.
The balanced scoring night was key, as key players like Livers and Hunter Dickinson struggled to find their shot throughout the game. Coach Howard praised his team’s ability to share the offensive responsibilities.
“That’s why I say you got to give these guys credit for the culture that they bought into. It says a lot about the character that I think it sometimes is not being said enough. We have a high character group that prides themselves on playing for one another and does not care about one person’s success. They enjoy each other’s success,” said Howard.
Michigan @ Ohio State, Sunday, February 21, 2021, Value City Arena, Columbus
OH Rutgers vs. Maryland, Sunday, February 21, 2021, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ