You don’t have to be a good college basketball team in December, but you have to show a pulse. The Wolverines didn’t show much of one for the first 30 minutes of their marquee non-conference home game against UCLA on Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, we go 8-for-22 from the foul line and win a game,” John Beilein said afterward. “It is a great testimony to our kids. We did everything we could to play some inefficient basketball, but when we really needed to suck it up at the end we got it done.”
At times it looked like Michigan was trying to gift wrap the game to the Bruins. The Wolverines struggled to score in the first and allowed UCLA to open the second half on a 16-4 run. Trailing by 15 in their own gym, it was hard to think about anything other than the second half debacle in Columbus on Monday.
But Charles Matthews, Moritz Wagner and Zavier Simpson resuscitated the Wolverines down the stretch.
Matthews and Wagner both had personal 8-0 runs, with Wagner’s back-to-back threes following an emphatic steal and dunk. Simpson earned critical minutes late in the game once again and shut down UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday while providing timely scoring of his own.
Two free throws from Eli Brooks sent the game to overtime where Michigan was finally able to take its first lead since the opening moments of the game and escape with a victory.
Michigan closed the game on a 33-15 run and its ability to lock down and get stops will draw some headlines, but it was the offense that finally figured things out late.
Moritz Wagner missed a pair of free throws with Michigan trailing by 9 points and a shade over 7 minutes to play. From that point onward, the Wolverines scored 33 points in the next 20 possessions that spanned the end of regulation and overtime. That’s a near-perfect 1.65 points per possession and Michigan’s empty trips were: a missed open three by Duncan Robinson, a fluky double-dribble by Simpson, a missed front-end by Matthews, and a missed pair of free throws by Matthews.
The Wolverines essentially had productive possessions on 19 of 20 trips down the court. In the first 60 possessions of the game up to that point, Michigan had mustered just 45 points or .75 points per possession. We’ve seen moments of brilliance from this offense, but there have also been painful stretches this season where baskets seem impossible to come by.
Michigan’s defense was good down the stretch and got the stops that it needed, but it wasn’t the primary problem early in this game. UCLA scored 54 points in the first 60 possessions (.9 points per possession) and 15 in the final 20 (.75 points per possession). Michigan’s defensive improvement as the game wore on was that it started rebounding, UCLA rebounded 43 percent of its misses in the first half, but only had 1 offensive board in the second half and overtime.
Turnovers were also a great equalizer for the Wolverine defense as the Bruins gave the ball away once every four trips down the floor. Michigan recorded 12 steals (led by Simpson and Robinson with 4) and scored 24 points off of giveaways.
Michigan’s free throw shooting is reaching code red levels of panic. The Wolverines made just 8 out of 22 free throws today and are now ranked 319th nationally in free throw percentage at 61.5 percent. Only two players on the roster (Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman) are shooting better than 70% from the stripe on the season and this is an area where Michigan simply has to improve.
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Michigan needed this game with a trip to Texas coming up on Tuesday. The Wolverines needed to salvage a quality win out of the non-conference slate and there wasn’t going to be a better chance than UCLA at home. Will this win galvanize the Wolverines ahead of a trip to Austin or does it just emphasize the issues that plague this group. Probably a bit of both, but gutting out a win like this is critical for a team that wilted in key crunch time moments against LSU and Ohio State.
- Charles Matthews: It seems like everything about Matthews is on the extremes right now. His free throw shooting isn’t average, it is horrible (44%). His ceiling isn’t just pretty high, it is through the roof. Matthews was 8-of-11 from the floor, hit a pair of triples and handed out three assists. He also turned the ball over four times, committed two silly early fouls and went 2-of-10 at the free throw line. Beilein told him on the bench that he was UCLA’s MVP early in the second half, but he answered the challenge and made some big plays. His comfort in the pick and roll game has grown exponentially in recent weeks and if he can make free throws and not have those four or five possession lapses in decision making then he can be a special player this year.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner had some woeful defensive moments, but provided the offensive spark that Michigan needed in the second half. As we’ve said all too often this year, Wagner had 23 points on 16 shots but his cover, Thomas Welsh, had 22 points on 12 shots. I thought he did have some nice defensive moments late in the game despite playing with four fouls and it also seemed like the Bruins were more focused on isolation Holiday late rather than throwing the ball to Welsh. Wagner missed all 3 of his freebies but made enough critical late offensive plays to save the Wolverines.
- Zavier Simpson: It sounds crazy to praise a guy who double-dribbled in the final 2 minutes of the game for making crunch time plays, but Simpson changed this game for Michigan. Beilein put him on the floor with 4:23 to play and he and he put the clamps on Aaron Holiday, who had scored UCLA’s last 8 points. Holiday turned the ball over 3 times down the stretch and in overtime and only scored 2 more points. Defensively, he also probably had a dozen deflections as he was incredibly active and managed to avoid being whistled for fouls It was the timely scoring that was most unexpected, UCLA played him as a guy who wasn’t going to attack the rim and he had some critical baskets driving to the hoop (and a few humbling blocks). He also knocked in a pair of three-pointers on a night where it felt like no one could make one. Simpson proved today that he might be the toughest point guard Michigan has and just seemed to will his way to the win.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks hit the two biggest free throw of the game and while he had only taken 6 free throws on the year, you might remember that he missed a key front-end against LSU. It showed a lot of confidence that Michigan went to him late down two with a great play out of the deadball and he rewarded Beilein’s trust. He really struggled to stay in front of Holiday, but I thought the offense moved well with him running the team.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: With Matthews sidelined by two first half fouls, Abdur-Rahkman attempted to carry the offense in the firs and went just 1-of-8 from the floor. He did have three turnovers and was basically the only playmaker on the floor for long stretches, but he has only made 2 of his last 13 shots inside the arc. He only took two shots in the second half, but hit the three-pointer that started Michigan’s comeback.
- Isaiah Livers: This was the best rebounding game that I’ve seen from Livers as he grabbed 7 boards in 11 minutes. He missed a pair of three-pointers, but gave the Wolverines just enough off the bench defensively. The next step will be trying to provide something on offense and if he can do that, the Wolverines will be able to answer a lot of their questions at the four.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson is now 4 of his last 24 from three-point range and that isn’t a minor worry for Michigan it is a debilitating offensive concern. He’s scored 14 points on 30 shot attempts in 109 minutes over the last four games. The numbers aren’t pretty and this is a full fledged slump and Michigan needs Robinson to be a great shooter to reach its ceiling. He missed some great looks today and at this point Michigan needs to just hope he starts hitting them. Beilein did sit him for a five minute stretch in the second half after the Bruins picked on him early and I thought he had a few critical defensive moments late including the best low post double that Michigan has executed all year.
- Jon Teske: Teske had a critical offensive rebound tap out and a putback layup for himself. He lost Welsh on a pick-and-pop in the first half, but I thought he provided some solid rim protection to spell Wagner.
- Jordan Poole: Poole is a loose cannon and the key for Michigan is how to get the good from him without the bad. Today he played heavy first half minutes with Matthews sidelined with 2 fouls, but missed all three 3-point attempts, split a pair of free throws and turned the ball over on a carry. Poole only saw the floor for 2 minutes in the second half.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons got some second half run as a second guard and promptly missed the front-end of a one-and-one. That’s not the way to earn extra playing time.