After easily slicing apart three lesser teams, No. 4 Michigan stumbled out of the gate in its first test of the season before picking themselves back up and reasserting themselves.
Trey Burke scored 17 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. added 16 and Michigan shut down the Pittsburgh via a switch in defensive tactics in the second half to reach the championship of the NIT Season Tipoff with a 67-62 win Wednesday night.
”This is big-man basketball right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. ”We haven’t had that type of good defense on us yet.”
Pittsburgh’s Tray Woodall made a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left to make it a one-possession game, and Pittsburgh (4-1) pressed after a timeout. But Michigan (4-0) made eight straight free throws to close it out.
”The coaches do a good job of putting us in those scenarios,” Burke said. "When it comes to game-time we just tell each other to win the game, shoot with confidence.”
James Robinson made a layup and was fouled with 3.5 seconds left, but missed the free throw and Michigan had the arrow for a jump ball that followed on the rebound. Pittsburgh fouled on the inbounds and Burke made the free throws while Michigan’s numerous fans chanted ”Beat Ohio!” — looking ahead to Saturday’s football game against archrival Ohio State.
Beilein said he noticed the noisy Michigan fans right from the start, and ”the `Beat Ohio’ at the end wasn’t bad, either,” Beilein said. ”Didn’t know they’re thinking about football as well.”
Before that happens, though, Beilein’s team will play Kansas State for the title on Friday afternoon. The Wildcats beat Delaware, which will face Pittsburgh in the consolation game.
Lamar Patterson led the Panthers with 14 points. It was a disappointing finish for a well-balanced Pittsburgh team that was expected to have an outside shot at contending in the strong and deep Big East conference — and looked set to score a big nonconference win early.
The Panthers led by eight in the first half and six in the second, but Michigan began to use its 1-3-1 defense to slow them down and limit their field goals until they got down to making free throws late.
”Coach trusted the three-zone enough for us to go to it,” Burke said. ”I think it was just a matter of making adjustments from the first half and giving them looks on the defensive end.”
Before closing with a bunch of layups that Michigan seemed willing to concede due to the game situation, the Panthers shot 5 of 20 from the floor, mostly against the zone.
”Once they went up, we knew we had to get in attack mode,” James Robinson said. ”So I just tried to make the best available play, which was to get to the bucket.
Hardaway tied it for Michigan at 44 on a layup with a little more than nine minutes remaining, and from there slowly pulled away. Michigan made 18 of 22 free throws to Pittsburgh’s 6-for-11 effort from the line.
”They outrebounded us by 11,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. ”It was obviously a very close game, tight game. I think this is a good game for us. We got some good performances.”
A key part of Michigan’s offense is 3-point shooting, and the Wolverines struggled from beyond the arc for most of the game. At one point, they’d made one of 10. Before Glenn Robinson III, who finished with 13 points, made one with about 11 minutes to go that cut Pittsburgh’s lead to two points.
Michigan responded after a slow start in its first test after demolishing subpar competition in its first three games — which it won by an average of 35 points.
Pitt led 33-29 at halftime thanks to some poor 3-point shooting by Michigan, whose only make was by Nik Stauskas in a 1-for-7 half. The Panthers made 5 of 12 from behind the arc and their size gave the Wolverines more trouble than they had been used to. Stauskas finished with 15 points.
”We live for moments like this as basketball players,” Stauskas said. ”Playing at the Garden against a good team like Pitt.”