Michigan basketball pulls away from Nebraska in 80-69 win on Christmas Day

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Michigan basketball did not let Teddy Allen and Trey McGowens spoil Christmas.

Despite the best efforts of the Nebraska guards, who combined for 40 points and made an assortment of difficult — and sometimes wild — shots, the Wolverines beat the Cornhuskers, 80-69.

It was the second time in program history that Michigan has played on Christmas Day.

Michigan had not played in 12 days, and while there may have been a few signs of the layoff, such as a 4-for-17 3-point shooting performance in the opening half, the Wolverines did not look particularly rusty.

They generated open shots on almost every offensive possession in which they did not turn the ball over, and while many of those shots didn't go down in the opening half, Michigan pulled away in the second half when it began to connect on some of those open looks.

Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) shoots against Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Shamiel Stevenson (4) and guard Kobe Webster (10) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020.
Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) shoots against Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Shamiel Stevenson (4) and guard Kobe Webster (10) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020.

[ Michigan needs more offense from Franz Wagner. Here's his plan ]

The Wolverines were led by Franz Wagner, who scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Allen had a game-high for Nebraska (21 in the first half), while McGowens scored all 15 of his points in the second half.

Smith saves the day

The Wolverines were close to pulling away for good when they took a 13-point lead with just over 11 minutes remaining — but then put together arguably one of their worst stretches of basketball of the past month. They did not score for 3:53 and saw their lead cut down to six. Then point guard Mike Smith stepped in.

Smith is not as much of a scorer as he was at Columbia and averaged 7.8 points and just six field-goal attempts entering the game, but he picked his spots and made a huge impact in the second half.

When Nebraska cut the lead to six, there was Smith with a timely basket. A few minutes later, the Cornhuskers surged back and cut the lead to four — only for Smith to knock down a 3. Then he pushed the ball in transition and fed Eli Brooks for a layup and, a few possessions later, found Wagner for an easy basket down low.

Smith finished with an efficient 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting to go with six assists, ran the offense smoothly, pushed the pace in transition when needed — and kept Michigan afloat during crucial moments in the second half.

Cornhuskers guard Trey McGowens (2) drives against Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) and forward Terrance Williams II (5) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020.
Cornhuskers guard Trey McGowens (2) drives against Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) and forward Terrance Williams II (5) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020.

Second-half surge

Michigan led by just two at halftime, thanks in large part to all the missed shots and Allen's first-half heroics, but quickly took control of the game after halftime.

The biggest reason: It started making 3s.

After connecting on less than 25% of their outside looks in the first half, the Wolverines opened the second half by making four of its first six 3s. Isaiah Livers, who was 0-of-4 from deep in the first half, made his first three 3s to start the second half as Michigan opened a double-digit lead. The Wolverines couldn't quite pull away and make the final 10 minutes of the game comfortable, but the early second-half surge ultimately proved to be the difference as Nebraska was never able to get within four points.

Cornhuskers guard Teddy Allen (0) drives to the basket against Michigan Wolverines forward Terrance Williams II (5) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. Allen had 21 points in the first half.
Cornhuskers guard Teddy Allen (0) drives to the basket against Michigan Wolverines forward Terrance Williams II (5) in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. Allen had 21 points in the first half.

Wagner's big game

On Dec. 23, Livers was asked about Wagner's start to the season, and said, “Franz is a smart player. He’s going to figure it out. Pretty sure this Nebraska game, everybody’s gonna see the Franz that ‘everybody’s’ been looking for.”

As it turned out, he was right.

Wagner, who entered Friday's game averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 field-goal attempts (both down from last season's numbers), was assertive early and often in Friday's game. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, attacking the rim, shooting 3s and trying several floaters.

The 3-point stroke isn't quite there yet, as Wagner made just 2-of-7 attempts, but he was still able to make a significant difference on offense even when his jumper wasn't falling consistently.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball pulls away from Nebraska in 80-69 win