ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan finally faced some competition in the Big Ten.
The surprise is that it came Wednesday at home against Nebraska, not Sunday at Ohio State.
The second-ranked Wolverines had their worst shooting game of the season and needed some old-fashioned grit to pull away for a 62-47 victory over unheralded Nebraska. The Wolverines improved to 16-0, equaling their best start since 1985-86 — when Gary Grant, Roy Tarpley and Antoine Joubert were donning the maize and blue.
Michigan blew out Northwestern (94-66) and Iowa (95-67) in its first two conference games, but struggled to pull away from a Cornhuskers team which slowed down the pace and took away the Wolverines’ offensive flow.
“We needed a game like this, where we weren’t up by 25 or 30 for most of the second half,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I think facing some adversity will help us in the long run.”
Michigan shot only 32 percent in the first half, missed 9-of-10 3-point attempts and only led 25-20 at the break.
In the second half, though, the Wolverines started taking the ball to the hole, forcing four Nebraska fouls on their first three possessions. Michigan was in the bonus within six minutes and ended up with 20 free-throw attempts in the final 20 minutes.
The Wolverines also pulled down 16 offensive rebounds.
“We kept working hard, and we needed to do that,” Beilein said. “You have to give Nebraska a lot of credit because they kept themselves in the game.
“We would get the lead to seven or eight points, and they would hit a 3. Then we would make a couple more shots, and they’d come back with another 3. They gave us a battle.”
Eventually, Michigan’s superior firepower wore out the Cornhuskers. Ray Gallegos knocked down 13 points in the final 12 minutes, but those were the only points Nebraska scored.
“We just couldn’t get going,” Gallegos said. “Michigan’s obviously a great team — they are second in the country — but we did the same thing to ourselves that we did against Wisconsin. We let Michigan have too many offensive rebounds, too many free throws and too many second-chance points.”
All five of Michigan’s starters reached double figures in something, although Jordan Morgan had the odd line of 11 rebounds and no points. Trey Burke scored 18 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. had 15 points and 11 rebounds, freshmen Glenn Robinson III added 14 points and Nik Stauskas 13.
The unsung hero of the night had to be freshman Mitch McGary. He scored only one basket, but he had six rebounds and spent much of the night diving on the floor for loose balls.
On one second-half play, he ended up on the floor with four Nebraska players. McGary ripped the ball out of the pack like he was recovering a fumble, then waved his hands to fire up the Crisler Center crowd.
“There aren’t a lot of freshmen who will dive on the floor like Mitch will,” Beilein said.
McGary hadn’t gotten off to the greatest of starts, getting pulled from the game and lectured after missing an early dunk. When he returned, he knew he had to help with defense and effort.
“Tonight, we weren’t hitting shots like we wanted to, so we just needed to make up for it on the defensive end,” McGary said. “I think we did that.”
The Wolverines will go for the first 17-0 start in school history … and if they needed any reminders where that game will be played, they only had to listen to the “Beat Ohio” chants Wednesday night.
“Ohio State and Michigan, just with the rivalry of the two schools playing against each other, it is always going to be an intense game,” said Burke, a Columbus native. “Last year was very intense, and we were all getting booed. I expect pretty much the same thing this year.”
The Wolverines want the record, and getting it at Ohio State would be icing on the cake.
Of course, Burke knows the Buckeyes will want just as badly to hand Michigan its first loss.