ANN ARBOR, Mich. — After suffering its first defeat of the season, John Beilein cited that No. 5 Michigan still had a lot of areas to improve in. That was apparent Tuesday as the Wolverines got off to a sluggish start against Minnesota, utilized a 23-3 run in the fueled by strong defense in the second half to get out to a lead, only for Minnesota to tie the game with 30 seconds left. Ignas Brazdeikis had his attempt at a game-winning layup blocked, Charles Matthews (7 points, 6 rebounds) corralled the rebound and took a second-chance jumper from the baseline and scored the game-winning basket as time expired to give Michigan (18-1, 7-1 Big Ten) a 59-57 win.
“I was just like thank goodness, he’s about to shoot it and then the ball looked like it was in slow motion from my view and then it went in.” Brazdeikis told reporters after the game. “I was just so excited, I don’t even remember, I was just screaming. I was just so excited to be in that moment and share in that moment with the team.
Matthews has had his share of struggles with his midrange jumper this season, especially since Big Ten play began. The irony was not lost on him that the signature shot of his Michigan career so far was in fact, a midrange jumper.
“Just keeping my head up, never be a cancer to the team. If I feel like I’m not getting shots, I don’t think a lot about that, but it was ironic.” Matthews said when asked about his cold shooting as of late.
Hours before Matthews hit the game-winner, few would’ve envisioned Michigan being tied with Minnesota in the final minute, let alone having a double-digit lead for chunks of the second half after the horrific first half the Wolverines endured.
Michigan’s sputtering start affected the team on both ends of the floor. Jon Teske collected a foul just 1:30 into the game, forcing Beilein’s hand as the coach substituted Isaiah Livers for Teske. Livers provided a spark, keeping his team close and providing five of the Wolverines first ten points over the first ten minutes of the game. Michigan’s glaring issue was it had no answer for Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy early, he provided seven points and five rebound over the first eight minutes, The Gophers took full advantage of Michigan’s small-ball lineup with Teske out.
Then Teske checked back in.
With nine minutes left in the first half, Teske (15 points, 5 rebounds) helped spark a 13-4 Michigan run that tied the game at 23. In a span of 4:15, Teske scored nine of the Wolverines 13 points, including splashing a three-pointer. By the end of the first half, Teske was 5 for 5, the rest of the Wolverines were 6 for 30. Michigan was lucky to be heading to the locker room trailing by only 3, especially after going 2/14 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes.
“We usually have one or two of these a year where I come in and tell you how blessed we are.” Beilein said about escaping with a victory. “Shoot 3 for 22 from 3, don’t do well from the foul line, have 7 assists for the game, shoot 30 percent and still win. Defense was an anchor today and it was still enough to get a W.”
The second half opened with a bang when Gopher forward Gabe Kalscheur (8 points, 1 rebound) decided the best way to stop Jordan Poole from stealing the ball was slapping him in the face. Kalscheur received with a flagrant-1, and while it did not galvanize Poole, Michigan woke up from its slow start after that flagrant foul, going on a 23-3 run that gave the Wolverines a 13 point lead with nine minutes left to play.
Ignas Brazdeikis was determined to shoot his way out of his offensive slump, and his coaches decided that was the best course of action for the freshman. Despite a 0/7 start from the field, Brazdeikis scored four points in the final two minutes of the second half. His sharp form continued after the break as he drained a triple and completed a three-point play to get Michigan back to within one. It was a welcome return to form for the freshman, who had missed 14 straight field goal attempts before his first make late in the first half. Brazdeikis finished the night as the top scorer in the game with 18 points and recorded his second career double-double by pulling down 10 rebounds.
“They trust in me. I trust in myself. Having that trust there gives me the ability to do those things and make plays and have that confidence in myself… I was not shaken, I just didn’t make shots early on,” said Brazdeikis. “I knew that I had to get aggressive, I didn’t make shots in Wisconsin, I felt like I wasn’t myself. I was just trying to be aggressive, make plays, kick out, create something for myself as well and get the whole team going.”
Brazdeikis provided the push, and it was Zavier Simpson (6 points, 3 rebounds) who catapulted Michigan to its first lead of the game. The junior guard scored consecutive buckets off turnovers, hitting one of his signature hook shots to give Michigan its first lead of the night after stripping the ball from Amir Coffey. Next trip down the court, Simpson stole the ball from Daniel Oturu and converted a quick layup to extend Michigan’s lead to 41-37. Crisler Center cranked the volume up to 11 as John Beilein’s pitbull finally got the Wolverines a lead after 25 minutes. From there, everything clicked, despite Charles Matthews being confined to the bench with three fouls for most of the run.
“Foul trouble is always frustrating. Coach B understands my frustration with that, but at the same time, he is doing that to protect me and protect the team,” Matthews told reporters. “He don’t want me to foul out the game. I will not let that affect my energy for the team.”
As time dwindled, Minnesota did find its way back into the game. Some missed free throws, bad shots, and turnovers allowed the Gophers to go on a 10-0 run over the final four minutes of the game and tie it at 57 with 30 seconds to play.
“We had a 13 point lead late, how many times do you see that at Michigan where we let it go like that?” Beilein asked. “We gotta continue to teach these guys what it takes to win like that. That could’ve gone the other way. When you’re up by that amount and we don’t make foul shots and we also don’t really execute on offense, you can get beat.”
However, on the final possession, it was Matthews, Michigan’s captain, and senior leader, who managed to make the shot of his career from just outside the paint. There was a fairly lengthy review by the referees, but in the end, Matthews shot counted and the game ended in raucous celebration.
“I know Iggy. He’s like a bull in a china shop going to the rim so he ain’t looking to kick out.” Matthews said, referring to the fact Brazdeikis was going to attempt the final shot before the clock ran out. “I just said you know what? He might miss this, let me just go try and get the rebound. Thank god I was in the right place at the right time.”
The Wolverines did not put forth a complete effort, but one that got the job done, and with how close the Big Ten is at the top this season, Michigan will take wins any way it can get them as it will likely battle Michigan State until the very end for the regular season conference championship.
“A win is a win, especially protecting your home court in Big Ten play. Every game here on out is gonna be like that, three, four minutes left, tie ball game up one, down one, and you gotta execute.” Teske stated. “Against Wisconsin we didn’t. Today we did just enough, we will definitely grow from this, learn from this, and take it to Indiana.”
Michigan now turns around after this emotional victory to face Indiana for the second time in three weeks. A loss to Minnesota, especially after blowing a 13 point lead, could have severely affected the young Wolverines psyche before heading to Assembly Hall. Instead, Michigan has another fantastic finish to add to a long list of them over the past two-plus seasons. Michigan has not lost consecutive games since January 29 and February 4, 2017, when the Wolverines fell to Michigan State and Ohio State. That streak will remain intact for the time being, but John Beilein’s team has a lot more learning in front of it if the Wolverines are to survive the stretch run leading towards March.