Michigan overcomes slow start, wins Big Ten opener

CHICAGO -- Michigan muddled its way through. Shooting 27 percent and watching a 15-point second-half lead shrivel to six late in the game, the Wolverines were still able to beat Minnesota 49-40 on Thursday in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament.

The teams combined for the lowest point total in the 10-year history of the tournament and Minnesota's 40 points were the fewest ever for one game.

"It wasn't a pretty game, in a lot of ways," said Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. "So we had to do some things in terms of loose balls, boxing out and getting things done after we got a big lead."

Michigan (21-11), hoping to play its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, faces No. 1 Ohio State in Friday's quarterfinals. The Wolverines lost a tough four-point game to the Buckeyes in the regular-season finale five days ago.

"We get to play the No. 1 team in the country," Michigan's Bret Petway said. "That's always an opportunity to look forward to. And it's going to be fun. We're ready for it."

There's been some heat on Amaker, despite the 20-win season. The NIT is not what the Wolverines are looking for.

"It's not about me personally," he added. "It's all about our team. I thought our kids came in with great spirit coming off our loss to Ohio State."

Jerret Smith hit a 3-pointer, Petway had a pair of baskets, one a roaring dunk, and Dion Harris made two free throws after a technical foul on interim Gophers coach Jim Molinari, all part of an early 11-0 run in the second half. That spurt opened up a 35-21 lead for the Wolverines, who are seeded eighth in the conference tournament.

Minnesota fought back with tough defense and twice got within six on a basket by Spencer Tollackson and 3-pointer by Jamal Abu-Shamala with just under five minutes left.

The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Tollackson, who led the Gophers with 15 points, missed two free throws with 1:39 left with a chance to cut it to five and the Wolverines salted away the win at the line.

"It's been a tough year with a lot of adversity," Abu-Shamala said. "We kept battling through it."

Minnesota (9-22) lost more games this season than any other since the university began playing the sport in 1896. And the Gophers' misery lasted one final game. The previous low was 41 points set by Wisconsin in 1999 and matched by Northwestern a year later.

Earlier this season, coach Dan Monson was forced to resign, and Molinari took over on an interim basis. He finished with a 7-17 mark after replacing Monson. Losing Tollackson for seven games to a broken hand early in the Big Ten season made the Gophers' challenge an even more imposing one.

"I think we had higher expectations than that. No excuses. ... But when Spencer went out seven or eight games, it hurt us and I knew it would be a struggle," said Molinari, adding that he hoped to be a head coach again some day. He's held that post previously at Bradley and Northern Illinois.

Maybe it was the 11 a.m. start, but both teams struggled mightily in the first half before a three-quarters-empty United Center with Michigan flailing to a 20-16 lead.

Minnesota missed its first seven shots and didn't have a basket until almost six minutes into the game. The Gophers then ran off eight straight points for a five-point lead.

Harris, who finished with Michigan with 14 points, had two free throws, a steal and layup and then a late 3-pointer, sending the Wolverines to a 20-16 halftime lead. Minnesota shot 29 percent in the first 20 minutes, making just 6-of-21. The Wolverines weren't much better, finding the range on just 7-of-23 (30 percent). Each team had eight turnovers.

Michigan looked ready to coast after it spurt in the second half, but Minnesota clawed back late but didn't have enough firepower to overcome the deficit. And the Golden Gophers fittingly closed their most dismal season with nine straight losses.