Michigan Throttles UTEP in NIT Opener

Chris Hunter / AP Photo / Tony Ding

The disappointment that came with missing out on the NCAA tournament surely lingered for the Michigan basketball team as they prepared for their opening contest in the NIT. Many expected their play on the court to be affected as a result, but the Maize and Blue showed their resolve in a convincing 82-65 win Thursday night over the UTEP Miners.

Tommy Amaker started an all senior lineup of Lester Abram, Chris Hunter, Graham Brown, Sherrod Harrell, and Daniel Horton. That unit got the Wolverines out to positive start before an all-underclassmen line-up came in to pick up where their elder teammates left off.

"I wanted to make sure those kids (the seniors) had the opportunity to start here tonight," Amaker said. "I kind of put on their shoulders a little bit…of being responsible for having us ready to play. I thought that they were energized and active defensively. They did a very nice job."

After falling behind 3-0, the home team caught fire. Two assists and a three-pointer from Daniel Horton and two emphatic slams by Brent Petway sparked a 20-6 run that gave Michigan an 11-point lead, (20-9), with just under 13 minutes to go.

The Miners battled back with six straight points to knife into the advantage, but a three-point barrage by the Wolverines helped regain the momentum. Horton, Harris, and Jerret Smith all connected on triples to spark a 13-4 run that put the Maize and Blue up 33-19 five minutes before heading into the halftime locker room up 10, (44-34).

UTEP senior Jason Williams quickly cut the lead to single digits to start the second half, but the Wolverines answered emphatically. After scoring six points in the first half, Chris Hunter emerged from the break more aggressive, and it showed. The Gary, Indiana native notched six early points to help Michigan push the lead to fifteen by the 15:41 mark.

The Miners managed to muster another comeback behind the three-point shooting of reserve Miguel Ayala. He helped cut the lead back to eight with 11:07 remaining. Then Hunter struck again to put the game out of reach. The six-foot eleven-inch senior scored eight straight points on a dunk and two three-pointers to cap off a 10-0 run that put the Wolverines up by 20, (73-53). From there the home team coasted to an 82-65 victory.

Amaker credited his team for putting their disappointment behind them and coming out to play with a purpose. "I was very pleased," said Amaker. "I felt [before the game] that our kids were going to come with some energy, some fight and some spirit. We needed that. I thought defensively we were active -- very active. We played a lot of players. We kept them fresh and I thought that was the difference for us being active and energized on the defensive end. They had fun playing but the spirit, their mentality was, that they were in this tournament. We're still playing, we're excited about that and we're trying to say that we're in it to win it."

On the game Jason Williams led all scorers with 25 points, eight rebounds, and four assists. The Wolverines had four players in double figures, led by Chris Hunter with 20 points and eight rebounds and Daniel Horton with 14 points, nine assists, and one steal. Amaker singled out the performances of his two seniors after the game.

"Hunter was certainly a big difference for on the offensive end," Amaker said. "He was active defensively. He had eight rebounds. He had a really really solid game. I thought (Daniel) had a tremendous floor game. I mentioned to him at halftime that I thought he had a tremendous first half. He got everyone involved. He wasn't thinking of himself at all. It was beautiful to watch him play that way. For a senior…a lot of those guys could have gone out and been 'me-first' guys, they weren't that at all. They were completely unselfish. They want to finish their careers and their years here the right way. I think they made a heck of a step toward that direction tonight…particularly Daniel with his floor game. Completely unselfish performance by that kid and we're very proud of him."

For more on the game, click the following links: Boxscore, Notes, Quotes, Photos.

Next up for the Wolverines is a rematch with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second round of the NIT. Michigan won a nail-biter, 71-67, back on December 3rd. The Irish enter Monday's match-up fresh off of a 79-69 victory over 4th-seeded Vanderbilt. Tip-off is scheduled for 7pm at Crisler Arena.

Tickets will go on sale at 8:30 a.m. Friday (March 17) at the U-M Ticket Department. They can also be purchased online or over the phone by calling 1- (866) 296-MTIX (6849). Prices are $10 for Blue reserved, $8 for Gold general admission and $5 for U-M student bleacher seats.

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