ANN ARBOR, Mich. — After Tuesday’s loss to Penn State, No. 6 Michigan (23-3, 12-3 Big Ten) knew it needed a strong response against No. 24 Maryland (19-7, 10-5 B1G.) The Wolverines won the opening tip and kept their foot on the gas pedal early, starting the game on a 21-6 run and riding tenacious defense the rest of the way to earn a wire-to-wire 65-52 win over the Terrapins.
“I think you saw it at Penn State. That was our worst defensive game in two years,” said Beilein of the Wolverines strong defensive effort Saturday. “It’s gonna happen, you’re just not gonna play 32 perfect defensive games, you’re gonna have games, and foul trouble and things like that that will blow it up. There was a sense of urgency today. I had no doubt our defense would be strong today.”
The first shot attempt of the game for Michigan was a Zavier Simpson (12 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) three-pointer off a feed from Jordan Poole. As soon as it tickled the twine, the players’ confidence only grew. As Maryland forward Bruno Fernando (12 points, 8 rebounds) tried to use his array of post moves, Jon Teske and Iggy Brazeikis shut down the future lottery pick, stifling him with physical defense. The Terps opened the game shooting 2-for 11 and trailed by double-digits for 13 minutes of the first half before drawing to within 9. When Michigan’s offense began to sputter over the final nine minutes of the first half, the defense did not let up and made sure the Wolverines carried a nine-point advantage into the locker room.
“We’re a team that loves adversity,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers regarding Michigan’s fast start after the loss to Penn State. “All our fans expected us to win that last game. A major emphasis was that we have to come out and hit first before they can hit us. Everyone was focused, everyone was locked in, everyone was active.”
As the second half opened, the slow offensive play that plagued the last five minutes of the first half carried over into the second half for Michigan. In the early going, Maryland’s Fernando and Anthony Cowan (10 points) outscored Michigan 14-10 to close the gap to six points. For the final fourteen, Michigan and Maryland traded baskets and the game morphed into the Big Ten battle many expected it to be on paper.
Maryland closed the gap to just three points with ten minutes to play, trailing 42-39. Despite having a difficult day offensively, Jordan Poole (8 points, 4 rebounds) got the feed off a rebound by Isaiah Livers (7 points, 4 rebounds) and stormed up the floor. Poole faced down a defender and blew by him for the easy bucket, Michigan up by 5.
“He went in there and finished over two of probably the best shot blockers in the Big Ten conference. That was amazing,” said Livers of Poole’s layup to widen the gap. “I honestly thought it was gonna get blocked and thought ‘why are you running in on two guys? He somehow finessed it with his left hand and it was huge.”
Next possession, Aaron Wiggins of Maryland missed, Livers rebound, Simpson sinks an uncontested three and Michigan went back up by eight, 47-39. The Wolverines caught lightning in a bottle, forcing Mark Turgeon to call a timeout with 8:41 to play. Following the timeout, the run continued, Aaron Wiggins hit a three for Maryland, two possessions later, Brazdeikis (13 points) countered with a triple of his own. Teske followed that up (after starting the game 1 for 10) with a pair of dunks and a three-pointer to get Michigan back up by 11.
Beilein had no idea that one bucket by Poole would help start the run to put away the game.
“I didn’t know at that time because we were really frustrated that we weren’t getting good looks and they were getting really good looks,” said Beilein. “That and then any three that we hit, whether it was Iggy, Jon’s or Zavier’s, it was huge to get us back because it was going south pretty quick.”
That run decided the game as Maryland entered desperation mode once the clock got under four minutes, and Michigan was able to ride out the clock to another ranked win, and the Wolverines improved to 16-0 at Crisler Center with only two home games remaining.
“I thought Michigan was terrific, especially at the defensive end. Defensively everywhere they were dialed in, you could tell that was a team coming off a loss,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “We built too big of a hole, against a great team you can’t do that. We battled, cut it to 3, then we had some bad possessions on defense after that but give Michigan credit, they deserve to win.”
Charles Matthews shined again for Michigan, picking up where he left off against Wisconsin and Penn State, scoring 8 points in the first half including two dunks in transition that got the Crisler faithful onto their feet. In the second half, he continued as the most consistent performer on either side of the ball finishing at both the rim and from midrange. He also provided a delicious dime of an assist to Teske on the dunk that increased Michigan’s lead to 52-44. Matthews finished as Michigan’s top scorer with 14 points and six rebounds.
“He does not like attention on himself,” Beilein said of Matthews and the senior embracing his role as leader in his senior year. “When you’re talking, everyone is looking at you, he would rather lead by example but we have such a young team, we don’t even have a true senior that we need another voice besides X. Jon is talking more too, but still that is not Jon’s deal, we need another leader and he is doing it. He’s playing his fourth year of college basketball with the opportunity to graduate. He’s got a sense of urgency to win this year and make a decision after the season so he doesn’t look back and say ‘I did nothing my senior year’”
The Wolverines did a relatively good job of staying out of foul trouble outside of two unnecessary shooting fouls on Brazdeikis and Matthews where conceding dunks at the rim would’ve been a more favorable outcome. Zavier Simpson collected his second foul with just over six minutes to play in the first half, and freshman David DeJulius got the call for the rest of the first half. DeJulius responded by scoring a very Simpson-like basket, driving the lane and finishing the bucket despite Maryland contesting the shot. It was DeJulius’ first points since scoring against Binghamton on December 30. DeJulius helped Michigan through its offensive slog and maintain that lead going into halftime. Beilein confirmed after the game that DeJulius would be Simpson’s understudy going forward.
“He did great, played great defense, knocked down a little 3 o’clock, we need that sense of urgency off the bench,” Simpson said of the freshman’s performance. “I was happy to see him come in and just be greedy, and be vicious and demonstrate what he can bring to this team as well.”
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Michigan had a rebound win that it very much needed to keep pace in the Big Ten title race. Early on, there was a reason to believe Michigan had solved its offensive woes, but instead, they reared their ugly head again until that spurt in the second half that sealed the victory for the maize and blue. The Wolverines now have five days until they face Minnesota at Williams Arena as Beilein and his assistants try and get the offense functioning before a hellish final stretch that will see Michigan facing Michigan State twice plus a road trip to Maryland. As expected before the season began, those games will likely be a factor in deciding which Big Ten team will hang the championship banner in early March. The Wolverines immediate focus, however, is to improve the offense and get a win at Minnesota before returning home for their biggest home tilt of the season against rival Michigan State.
Michigan keeps finding ways to win, as it did Saturday, and it is proving to be a recipe for success as the Wolverines remain atop the Big Ten standings. A new batch of challenges await the Wolverines next week, but for now, the team will celebrate another win in the long march towards March.