By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 29, 2011
It started with a dunk, was followed by a layup and ended with an offensive explosion.
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Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. came alive at the end of the first half on Thursday night and stayed hot after the break, scoring 26 points to lead the Michigan basketball team to a 71-53 win over Penn State at Crisler Center in each team’s Big Ten opener.
It was Michigan coach John Beilein's first victory in a conference opener since taking over as head coach in 2007.
“I was apprehensive before this game, just to see how we were going to respond when we were playing in our conference,” Beilein said. “I was pleased how we responded. We’re still a huge work in progress, but there’s a lot of evolution going on out there. I like the direction that we’re going.”
Hardaway Jr. had two energy plays — both assisted by senior guard Zack Novak — to help build No. 18 Michigan’s momentum and put the Nittany Lions behind for good. With the Wolverine defense clamping down and the team already on a 9-3 run, Novak found Hardaway Jr. alone underneath for a powerful two-handed slam.
Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz then followed by taking the ball away from Penn State’s Matt Glover and got it out to Novak. He found Hardaway Jr. for a layup in traffic, bringing the Crisler Center crowd to life and helping Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 11-2 overall) to a 36-22 halftime lead.
Out of the break, Hardaway Jr. dumped in eight of the first 10 points for the Wolverines and assisted on a Novak 3-pointer. Smotrycz — who finished with 10 points — then followed with a three of his own to put Michigan up by 20 points.
The Wolverines never looked back.
Hardaway Jr. added another dunk and a 3-pointer with 7:30 left in the game to extend the lead back to 21 and further remove any doubt about the outcome. The Miami, Fla. native didn’t let his 1-for-7 performance from 3-point range keep him down, reflecting his development as an all-around threat.
“If (Hardaway Jr.) is going to go around people like that when they (guard the 3-pointer), something’s got to give,” Novak said. “You can’t take away the three and the drive, with someone as athletic as him and someone that can shoot it like him. When he’s got them both working, he’s tough to stop.”
Holding a big lead, though, has been troublesome for Michigan this season. The team let inferior squads Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Towson back into the game in each second half earlier this year.
Last season, too, the Wolverines saw home victories over Northwestern and Indiana nearly slip away after blowing big leads after halftime. But against Penn State (0-1, 8-6), Michigan closed it out much better.
The Nittany Lions started pressuring the Wolverines in the backcourt after Michigan gained separation early in the second half. They mostly deployed a 1-2-2 three-quarter court zone, but also threw several more looks at the Wolverines.
Beilein said that, other than a pair of turnovers by Novak and senior guard Stu Douglass right after the Nittany Lions began to press, he was pleased with how Michigan responded to it.
Beilein was especially encouraged by the composure of freshman point guard Trey Burke, who had 13 points, seven assists and no turnovers in his Big Ten debut.
“We’re getting better recognition, especially when we have the ball in Trey’s hands,” Beilein said. “You could go into that situation, and Penn State could end up going 1-2-2 trap, 1-2-2 back to a man, 1-2-2 back to a 2-3 zone, 1-2-2 back to a 2-3 zone and trap once.
“That’s a lot of stuff for an 18-year-old kid to understand. The more he does it, the better he’ll get at it.”
The defense, too, avoided breakdowns, preventing Penn State from getting back into it. The unit was especially effective early in the first half — Michigan’s quality defense kept the game close until the offense broke through, with Smotrycz’s free throws with 8:49 left in the first half giving the team its first double-digit lead.
Though the Wolverines did give up 11 offensive rebounds to the Nittany Lions, who came into the game leading the conference in that category, they held Penn State to a 39.6 field-goal percentage. Star guard Tim Frazier had to work for his 20 points, shooting just 8-for-18 for the game.
It all added up to an impressive opening victory in the Big Ten.
“We haven’t a won a Big Ten opener since I’ve been here,” Novak said. “To get that first one under our belt (is big).