ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The weather outside was frightful, but the atmosphere inside Crisler Center was delightful. Despite subzero temperatures outside, the Michigan faithful filled the building as No. 5 Michigan battled rival Ohio State back and forth early before the Wolverines (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) blitzed the Buckeyes (13-7, 3-6 Big Ten) in the second half en route to a 65-49 win. Michigan junior and Lima, Ohio native Zavier Simpson led the Wolverines, collecting the first triple-double by a Wolverine in over three years (Derrick Walton on Dec 12, 2015) with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists.
“Two of my assistant coaches whispered to me ‘get another rebound’ that was when I looked up and I was like ‘wow, this is real.” Simpson said regarding his performance. “I got it so it was definitely a blessing. Definitely a special moment for myself and my teammates as well. Ohio state is a great team this year, team I grew up watching, my dream school, so it was definitely special.”
Simpson’s coach had plenty of praise for the junior point guard as well.
“You cannot say enough about what Zavier Simpson accomplished today. A triple-double is incredible.” John Beilein said after the game. “I think just as big is to have the ball that much with 12 assists and no turnovers. I don’t recall coaching that ever. He was a spark plug, this game means a lot to him and Jon.”
Michigan found itself down early thanks to the presence of Ohio State forward Kaleb Wesson and the Buckeyes deploying a 2-3 zone defense. Wesson set the tone by scoring a three-pointer off the opening possession of the game. The Buckeyes controlled most of the first six minutes of the game, leading 12-6 and outshooting Michigan 71% to 30%.
“What they tried to do in the first half was really mix us up. They’re (Michigan players) going away from the coaches, and it took us a while to get recognition on what they (Ohio State) were doing. Once we got a rhythm for it, we started to play a better rhythm whether it was zone or man.” Beilein said when addressing the slow start.
The Wolverines did start to find their rhythm once they got back in the game with a 4 for 4 start from the free throw line. Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis made two freebies each to get Michigan to within two. From that point, trailing 12-10, Michigan outscored Ohio State 22-14 over the rest of the half, receiving the biggest boost from a 10-2 run to end the first half. The run was sparked by a Matthews three-pointer and finished by the senior guard when he converted his own miss into a second-chance layup. Michigan carried a 32-26 lead into the break and was buoyed by the fact Wesson did not score in the final 9:32 of the first half after scoring 9 points in the opening ten.
The final twenty minutes did not open in the same manner. Four turnovers, three fouls, and zero points made up the first two minutes before Wesson ended the scoreless streak with a three-pointer. While the half started as a clunker, it was energized by none other than Michigan’s hype man, Jordan Poole. The sophomore drew two charges in the second half and continued to shoot well after opening the game 1 for 6 from the field, Poole finished 5 for 13 with a game-high 15 points. In addition to the charges he drew, he performed a thunderous block on Kaleb Wesson in the first half that worked the Crisler Crowd into a fervor. The Wolverines started the game 5-14 from beyond the arc but improved in the second half shooting 5 for 11 to go 10 for 25 for the game, which proved to be satisfactory for Michigan.
“My confidence stays the same, it’s just a matter of the types of looks I get.” said Poole, who was encouraged by Beilein to keep shooting in the first half despite his struggle to find the bottom of the basket. “Last couple games I was getting spaced vertical. I haven’t seen zone for a really long time, last time I saw zone I hit six three’s or something like that. It’s rare that we see zone but when we saw zone right away I was like ‘we gotta get this going’. After the first couple swings I realized I was a little too lit and a little too up, then I was just able to knock a couple down.”
Beilein explained further that he was encouraging his sophomore guard to keep on firing early despite Michigan trailing.
“JP had some really good looks and we have a lot of confidence. That first time out the only thing I told him was the only mistake would be to stop shooting, that was my only message to him at that time. When you see us with 10 made three’s, it’s usually a W.”
The star of the night was Lima, Ohio native Zavier Simpson. The point guard had his finest performance of the season against his home state Buckeyes as he finished the night with the program’s first triple-double in three seasons. Simpson collected his 10th rebound in the waning moments of the game and received a thunderous standing ovation when he checked out of the game for the final time.
“I didn’t want to hunt for it, but I also did not want to miss out on this opportunity,” Simpson said regarding getting the final rebound he needed to complete the feat. “My teammates, they told me to get it so two of them could’ve got a rebound and I was like hey! I’m here! They kinda let it bounce to me. You can win a lot of games with teammates doing that for other teammates, that means a lot. Big shoutouts to Isaiah and Charles, they helped me get that.”
Simpson’s teammates were actively working during the later part of the game to help their captain accomplish something that only five other Wolverines have in program history
“I heard the fans like hey! I mean honestly, if I had went for it he would’ve took my arm off.” joked Isaiah Livers (12 points, 4 rebounds.) “We all saw it (that Simpson was one rebound from a triple-double) and we’re like we gotta get him this rebound.”
Perhaps the biggest fireworks broke out between Simpson and Wesson midway through the second half. Some jawing between the two, which may have been caused by Simpson blocking Wesson on a layup attempt moments before, led to Jon Teske and Wesson shoving each other before the referees had to intervene. Simpson, Teske, Wesson and Ohio State’s Keyshawn Woods all received technical fouls for their roles in the skirmish. Michigan had the game mostly in hand at that point but did not look back as the double-digit advantage held for the final seven minutes. The coaches weighed in on the fracas during their postgame comments.
“We were really concerned about be quiet right now I think I said that in different words, and just play ball, let them do the talking, we’re gonna let our actions speak for us.” Said Beilein.
“I think that was the accumulation of some frustration for a variety of reasons,” commented Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann. “When it’s that physical, those things tend to happen, I think both teams would probably look at it and say they could handle it better.”
The players meanwhile, were content to let what happened on the court remain on the court, and not turn into something bigger.
“No comment.” Poole replied when asked about what was said on the court between players.
“What happens on the court stays on the court, we gonna keep that on the court,” said Simpson.
Michigan did a nice job Tuesday recovering from a slow start to grab another win to wrap up January with a 7-1 record and enter February with plenty of momentum. In what is becoming a two-horse race for the top of the Big Ten between Michigan and Michigan State (with Purdue lurking just behind them,) the Wolverines know what’s at stake leading up to what will be an incredible matchup on February 24th, but as always, will remain focused on the immediate task at hand. Michigan travels to Iowa Friday to face the Hawkeyes at an always intimidating Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Based on Michigan’s last road trip, in addition to Tuesday’s win, the Wolverines have plenty of reason to feel confident heading to Iowa City as they enter the final month of the regular season.