No. 4 Michigan gets the early test it needed, and passes with a gritty win over Pitt
NEW YORK -- A week ago Michigan had a 3-0 record with an average margin of victory of 35 points.
But none of it really meant much.
On Wednesday, the Wolverines trailed by as many as seven points in the second half before climbing back for a 67-62 win over Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament.
This time, a five-point win seemed to speak an awful lot louder than any 35-point blasting the Wolverines had scored to start the year.
"(We needed this) a lot," said Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who finished with a team-high 17 points to go along with 6 assists. "The first couple of games, I wouldn't say they were easy, but they weren't Pitt talent-wise.
"With this team, we know we need to stay grounded, stay humble and stay together. And that's what we did tonight."
Pitt's not a ranked opponent, its not expected to win the Big East and its far from perfect. But it is an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent.
And, perhaps more importantly, it was a team Michigan was expected to beat.
On this night, the Wolverines certainly acted the part of the fourth-ranked team in America -- and Friday (against Kansas State), the Wolverines will go for an NIT Season Tip-Off championship.
"Everybody's going to give us their best game, they know (where) we're ranked," said junior Tim Hardaway Jr., who finished with 16 points and 4 rebounds. "We just have to be prepared and ready for any possibility they throw at us."
Very little was perfect about Michigan's win Wednesday, but for the first time in a long time, it didn't have to be.
Pitt had size, it had bulk and it had athleticism. But so did Michigan. The Wolverines out-rebounded a traditionally rugged Panther squad 37-26, beating them at their own game for almost the entire second half.
Both Hardaway and freshman wing Glenn Robinson III were quiet during the game's early going, but were clutch when the game was on the line -- as Robinson scored 9 of his 13 points in the game's final 11 minutes, while Hardaway shook off three fouls to drop in back-to-back layups that gave Michigan a 7-point edge with just 1:50 to go.
They were poised, they were resilient and on this night, they were just better.
"I think we live for moments like this as basketball players," said freshman wing Nik Stauskas, who scored 15 points and went 6-for-6 from the foul line. "Playing at the Garden against a good team like Pitt, we did a great job of coming together and staying poised."
Michigan still has an awful lot to learn about itself, and it still has to prove if it truly deserves that No. 4 ranking.
But on Wednesday, it did prove something.
It proved that, unlike years past, it doesn't have to be perfect against a highly-skilled, highly-physical team to win a basketball game. Against the Ohio States and Michigan States over the past two years, Michigan had little to no margin for error, because physically, it just couldn't hang.
Well, in 2012-13, it has all the talent and physical tools it needs to hang.
And that means an awful lot.