“We won, man.”
Charles Matthews couldn’t find any other words as he sat sprawled across his locker yelling to no one in particular.
And really, what else was there to say? This was basketball in its purest and most unforgiving form. Somehow, Michigan won. Houston lost. It didn’t really make any sense, but that’s how the ball bounced and the horn sounded. Careers were over. Heroes were made.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman missed a layup he would make 7 times out of 10. Devin Davis missed 3 free throws in a row after he made his first 9 of the game. Then Jordan Poole made a 30-foot contested 3-pointer at the buzzer to send Michigan to the Sweet 16.
It was a shot that Poole claims he hits “all the time” and he was quick to cite that he’s “5-of-6 on game-winners in practice.” To everyone else, it was a miracle.
If the game didn’t make any sense, the pairing of John Beilein and Jordan Poole makes even less. Poole is brash, confident, easy going and cocky. His head coach says his swag ranks in the top 1 percent of any players that he’s coached over his lengthy career.
Beilein is calculating and meticulous. He carefully plots out every minute of Michigan’s gameday agenda. He scripts the play that won Michigan the game into practice every three or four days. (It doesn’t usually end with a Jordan Poole 3-pointer).
But when it comes down to 3.3 seconds that will go on to define careers, sometimes it takes a Jordan Poole 3-pointer to finish the job.
On Thursday night against Montana, I thought Michigan’s poor offensive play was a product of its own issues. Tonight, Houston played one of the best defensive games that I’ve seen against Michigan. The Wolverines managed to score just 64 points in 65 possessions in the victory. They needed every one of them and none of them came easy.
John Beilein entered this NCAA Tournament with 20 NCAA Tournament games under his belt on the Michigan sideline. In 20 tries, his teams had never failed to score a point per possession offensively. The Wolverines were just 3-4 when they scored 1.05 points per possession or worse.
But this isn’t a normal Beilein team. This group of Wolverines played two offensive stinkers in Wichita, but figured out how to escape with victories despite odious shooting performances. Michigan attempted 30 3-pointers on Saturday night and made only 8 (27%). The eighth one won the game and kept the season alive. Michigan didn’t turn the ball over, took the right shots, but they just didn’t go in.
It was Michigan’s defense that got the job done once again. The Wolverines held Houston to .97 points per possession in another impressive defensive showing. Rob Gray got his 23 points, but he needed 22 shot attempts and turned the ball over three times. Michigan did a great job of limiting Houston’s shooters as Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis were just 2-of-6 from 3-point range on the night.
How well did Michigan’s defense play? Houston shot just 36.1% inside the arc.
If Michigan lost this game, it would have been because of its inability to keep Houston off the line and stay out of foul trouble. Houston attempted 22 free throws and the Wolverines were whistled for 22 fouls.
The cruelty of this game is that Devin Davis was the primary reason that Houston was in position to win the game in the first place. Davis had 17 points and 7 rebounds. He had finished a critical and-one to foul out Duncan Robinson. He shifted over to play the center down the stretch and allowed the Cougars to switch everything and was able to bother Moritz Wagner.
Michigan won this game to punch its ticket to its second consecutive Sweet 16 and John Beilein was in the locker room lamenting the fact that Michigan was making the same mistakes tonight that it made during its 7 losses this year. The Wolverines didn’t play well offensively by any definition and they are going to have to figure something out before a Thursday night game in Los Angeles, but that’s a much better way to spend Monday than cleaning out their lockers.
- Jordan Poole: To say Jordan Poole was built for this sort of moment would be putting it lightly. Poole only played 11 minutes (4 in the second half), but the ball found him and he threw it in the basket. It is just what he does. The rest of his game still has some gaps and his defense showed cracks, but he’s now officially a star of March.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: It wouldn’t have been right for Abdur-Rahkman’s career to end this weekend after playing two of his worst games of the season. He managed to score 12 points and hand out 3 assists, but he was just 0-of-6 from 3-point range and many of those attempts weren’t even close. Over the past month, Michigan has shifted to run more and more of its offense through Abdur-Rahkman and he had been producing. The Wolverines will need him to hit those off the dribble shots in the second half. His decision making in that final possession will probably be forgotten a bit, but with his career on the line and the ball and his hands he had the ability to find Poole for the shot in a split second.
- Charles Matthews: Charles Matthews was one of the few Wolverines who I would say had a great week in Wichita. Matthews scored 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting, grabbed 5 rebounds and handed out two assists. I thought he played a very strong game on both ends of the floor and had some strong takes to the rim. He stilled missed a few at the basket he’d like to have back, but he’s giving Michigan great minutes.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson kept Michigan afloat in the first half with 3 triples off the bench, but missed his open looks in the second half. I still was very impressed with how well he continues to play defensively whether it is bodying up drivers or battling in the post. He did eventually foul out, but he gave Michigan 30 very impressive minutes.
- Jon Teske: When was the last time Jon Teske made 2-of-2 free throws on a trip to the line? The 60% free throw shooter split his first two trips to the stripe and then made his last four and they were all critical as the Wolverines hung around in the game. For all of the talk about free throw shooting all season, to have Teske go and make those down the clutch was absolutely critical.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson’s defense was as advertised against Rob Gray (5 defensive boards, 2 steals and a block). He bothered the Houston point guard and the majority of Gray’s made shots were incredibly difficult shots. Simpson’s offense wasn’t on the same level this week in Wichita as it was in New York City. He missed all four 3-point attempts tonight and also turned the ball over 3 times. He hasn’t looked as comfortable attacking the basket and just wasn’t as aggressive with the ball in his hands.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner only played 23 minutes as he battled foul trouble. If he keeps picking up silly fouls, that will be how this Michigan run ends. The Wolverines need him on the floor to make it through another weekend. He had his moments including a couple of great passes in the first half and a huge 3-pointer after Houston had pulled ahead in the second half. Houston’s ball screen defense was very good and they did a terrific job overplaying the pop and basically reading the fact that Wagner and Simpson were going to that on every play. This clip of Wagner going to console Corey Davis Jr. says something about his character that gets lost in his “villain image”.
- Isaiah Livers: Who would have thought that Isaiah Livers’ fast ball would win Michigan two games this year? The fact that Houston didn’t guard Livers despite the fact that he couldn’t run the baseline surprised Livers, but he delivered the ball on the spot to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who did the rest. It was an otherwise quiet day for Livers, who is finding it hard to carve out playing time with Robinson playing well.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons had a great transition assist to Moritz Wagner in the first half, but a defensive breakdown on a sideline out of bounds that led to a Rob Gray 3-pointer cut his second half minutes short.
- Ibi Watson: The fact that Ibi Watson was on the floor for Poole’s game-winning shot might be a trivia question in a few years, but his solid 3 minute defensive shift in the first half deserves mention. Matthews was sidelined with 2 fouls and Poole had been beaten on defense and Watson was able to stay solid defensively.