ANN ARBOR, Mich. — No. 7 Michigan and No. 19 Wisconsin have battled plenty over the past few seasons, Saturday’s first half was indicative of just how physical those games could be. Wisconsin senior Ethan Happ dominated early, but Michigan figured out how to counter with punches of its own against the Big Ten’s best big man. Charles Matthews scored 16 second-half points and played a huge role on the offensive end to lead Michigan (22-2, 11-2 Big Ten) to a 57-50 win over Wisconsin (17-7, 9-4 Big Ten) to improve to 15-0 at Crisler Center this season.
“We came out pretty stagnant to start the second half and it was a low scoring game in the first half as well, so I just wanted to be aggressive and try to put some points on the board,” Matthews said following his 18 point game, his highest scoring output since scoring 18 vs Indiana on January 6.
John Beilein pointed out Friday that he believed Wisconsin was playing like one of the best teams in the nation coming into this game. The Badgers showed why as they dominated Michigan early, getting out to an early 13-5 lead in the game’s opening minutes. Slowly but surely, Michigan fought it’s way back, outpacing Wisconsin on a 13-4 run of its own to earn the Wolverines their first lead with 9:06 left to play in the opening period. The Wolverines were able to slow down Happ (18 points, 11 rebounds) by switching different players on him defensively and employing some double-teams. Happ had 10 points in the game’s first eight minutes, and only 8 points in his final 18 minutes on the floor. After the game, Beilein said Happ came up to shake his hand and that the Badger big man hopes to see Michigan in the postseason, Beilein joked that he wanted nothing to do with a rematch
“This is his fifth year here now and I am not embarrassed to say that Wisconsin has gotten the best of a lot of teams in the Big Ten and not just Michigan, and he has been a big part of that success in the last four years,” Beilein said, praising his opponent. “So no I don’t want to play him ever again, I don’t want to play Wisconsin but they are part of the league, between Bo and now Greg I mean just two masterful coaches that understand what winning basketball looks like, if we can ever emulate that, then we’re a really good team.”
The key to Michigan’s offense since its first loss to Wisconsin had been freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, who came into the game averaging 18.2 points per game since being held scoreless by the Badgers on January 19. The freshman phenom struggled again vs. Wisconsin, finishing the first game with only two points and going 1-9 from the field. With Brazdeikis’ shooting trouble, Jordan Poole (10 points, 9 rebounds) and Jon Teske (17 points, 12 rebounds) picked up the slack early. The pair combined for 15 first-half points, and along with Isaiah Livers (9 points, 4 rebounds) helped pace Michigan to a 27-27 tie going into the locker room.
“Key moments of the game were the start of the second half,” Beilein said. “We could not get a bucket but they couldn’t get a bucket and all of a sudden it’s still tied now we get up by 3 and we just edged enough ahead of them.”
Michigan and Wisconsin were scoreless to start the second half when Happ committed his third personal foul. As Happ took a seat, Michigan knew it had a chance to capitalize; the problem was, the shots were not there. The Wolverines found their spark when Badger guard Brad Davison (9 points, 5 rebounds) was called for a flagrant foul for a hook and hold on Teske. Teske converted both free throws to make it 29-27, then Charles Matthews (18 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) announced his presence to the game. Matthews went on to score or play a role in seven of Michigan’s next eight baskets until Happ checked back in with 9:13 to play and Michigan leading 44-40. Most notably, Matthews had a clutch tip on a Jordan Poole three-point miss to get the ball back to Poole for a layup to extend Michigan’s lead to 38-33 during that spell. Jon Teske also played a big role in that run.
“Definitely, that turned into a four-point play,” Teske replied when asked about the hook and hold and ensuing offensive run. “Charles hit a little turnaround right there, so just getting that momentum I don’t know how much we went up at the time but just kinda getting that, getting the crowd up. From there I think we just kinda turned it on and Charles made a lot of big shots down the stretch.”
Once Happ checked back in with nine minutes left, the game dynamic shifted for the Badgers, but Matthews was hellbent on not allowing a Wisconsin win on his home floor. Davison hit a three to get Wisconsin to within one, Matthews countered with a jumper. Matthews also had a few key assists to Teske, who had a double-double and a stat line to match Happ’s with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
“I was just getting the ball more this game I felt, I wasn’t really just standing around in the corner,” said Matthews. “Coach was really calling more plays for me to get more movement and get me to be able to attack and not just wait for shots.”
Matthews and fellow captain Zavier Simpson (5 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists) were both vital to Michigan on Saturday. Matthews offensive efforts and Simpson’s fearless defending of Wisconsin big men Happ and Nate Reuvers proved to be a difference maker in a game where possessions were at a premium for forty full minutes. Simpson’s tenacious defense was no surprise to his teammates, despite the junior guard going up against big men almost a foot taller than him.
“He does a tremendous job, every day in practice he is going against Austin Davis and Jaren Faulds so give a lot of credit to the scout team,” said Teske of Simpson’s ability. “He is doing the dirty work down there sometimes you don’t see that but he is a tremendous on-ball defender and when especially if he gets caught in the low post he is gonna fight and scratch and that is what he did.”
Matthews scored 16 of his 18 points and had some vital offensive rebounds and assists to keep Michigan ahead of Wisconsin by the slimmest of margins. The Badgers got to within one point of Michigan a few times but never led in the final twenty minutes. Matthews was happy he could showcase his offensive prowess and thanked his coaches for getting him involved in the gameplan after scoring only five points in Madison three weeks ago.
“This is what I envisioned for him when he came here,” Beilein said. “There’s been times in the games that he’s not sure what he should do, should he shoot? Should he take it to the basket? Should he pass it? Today I think with the exception of the first half, in that second half he had a great mix of making those decisions.”
While Michigan was the higher ranked team coming into Saturday’s game, the Badgers were playing like one of the best teams in America, riding a six-game winning streak. Michigan managed to neutralize one of the best players in the sport, and its team captains led the Wolverines down the stretch to a win that not only was important for the conference championship chase, but one that came against a team that had had Michigan’s number for most of the Beilein era. There was no denying Michigan was out for a bit of revenge after Wisconsin dealt the Wolverines their first loss of the season in January.
“This was a bit of a revenge game because they did beat us there, it was our first loss, people storming the court, we don’t like that,” Beilein said, reflecting upon his team’s loss in Madison. “Even though it’s the right thing to do, when you lose the game and somebody storms the court on you, it’s not like ‘wow they are storming the court on us’ it’s like wow we don’t like that situation, but our kids were fired up about playing because they haven’t lost much, so it hits them really hard. I thought our focus and just staying at an even keel throughout the whole game; I don’t think we took many bad shots one or two the whole game and playing them with a limited possession game, you take six or seven or eight and you turn it over 16 times, we had no chance to win that game at Wisconsin with the way we played.”
The Wolverines will try and run their win streak to three games on Tuesday against Penn State in Happy Valley, but based on how important this win over Wisconsin was to Michigan’s Big Ten title dreams, as well as NCAA Tournament seeding (The NCAA has Michigan as the 6th overall seed and a 2 seed in the East according to the early bracket reveal, which came out before Michigan beat Wisconsin.) It is one that Beilein said his team will take the rest of Saturday to enjoy before getting back to work and readying for Penn State.