No. 9 Michigan arrived at the Xfinity Center in College Park Sunday facing an uphill battle. No. 17 Maryland came in undefeated in Big Ten play at the Xfinity Center, sitting at 8-0. The Wolverines were without Charles Matthews (ankle) for a second straight game, and Michigan started the game 0 for 5 from the field as Maryland collected a 6-0 lead. Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson (12 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds) then put his stamp on the game. 6:29 in, Simpson made one of his now trademark hook shots to put Michigan within two, and the junior drove the Wolverine offense from there. Simpson either scored or assisted on nine of Michigan’s ten made field goals in the first half, piloting the Wolverines to a 28-24 lead at the half. Michigan (26-4, 15-4 Big Ten) behind the efforts of Simpson and Ignas Brazdeikis (21 points, 7 rebounds) defeated No. 17 Maryland (21-9, 12-7 Big Ten) 69-62 and improve to 8-1 against AP Top 25 teams this season.
Isaiah Livers (11 points, 5 rebounds) started in place of the injured Matthews. The Kalamazoo native got off to a slow start after he recorded a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) against Nebraska on Thursday in Michigan’s 82-53 win. Livers went the entire first half not making a shot from the floor, only scoring two points on two free throw attempts. Brazdeikis picked up the offensive slack by employing a bully ball style that saw him drive to the rim often, and he drew four offensive fouls in the first half. Brazdeikis also was responsible for Michigan’s only made three-pointer of the first half, which was placed under review to see if the freshman’s foot was on the line, but ultimately stood. Brazdeikis also collected three offensive rebounds in the opening stanza, and his shots down the stretch proved vital.
As the second half opened, Michigan looked to continue humming after finishing the first half on a 12-2 run, capped by a driving layup to the rim by Simpson before the buzzer. Eighty-five seconds into the half and Simpson got called for his third personal foul, just 28 seconds after collecting his second. Beilein decided to sit his pit bull of a point guard, forcing Michigan to try and maintain some offensive flow without its leader. Maryland took advantage initially, outscoring Michigan 11-5 as Simpson headed to the bench, and the Terps carried a 36-35 into the first media timeout at 15:50, capped by a furious 9-2 run.
From there, the chess match between Michigan coach John Beilein and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon unfolded. Neither team led by more than two for nearly five minutes. Simpson finally retook the floor with 11:03 left in the game and Maryland leading 43-41. The Terps ended up outscoring Michigan 16-11 with Michigan’s captain riding the pine. The plodding pace continued but Simpson’s return sparked a 5-0 run from Michigan including a triple from Livers and a third hookshot of the game by Simpson.
“With a third foul, it’s around the 12-minute mark,” Beilein explained post game to CBS about when he would bring Simpson back into the game. “Now if they had gone on a run immediately and taken a lead by five, I might have done it earlier. We were holding ourselves, the lead went from five to tied, but it is really important he was in for those last twelve minutes.”
As the Top 25 tilt entered its final ten minutes, Simpson continued to make an impact. The Wolverines showed a team effort and resolve on the road in the face of adversity unseen from this team during some uneven play on the road throughout January and February. With Michigan leading by only three with five minutes to play, Brazdeikis sank a triple, Simpson converted yet another hook shot and Brazdeikis put one in with a kiss to give Michigan a 55-47 lead.
Beilein praised Simpson’s play in the final minutes but pointed out that Simpson’s third foul was wholly unnecessary.
“First of all, that was a dumb foul by him,” Beilein said with a grin. “He is a much smarter player, he is gonna hear from me on that one! That young man on the court, you can see what he did at the end, he made a lot of the right plays.”
Maryland refused to go away quietly as this one had the makings of a classic down the stretch. After the final media timeout, the Wolverines and Terrapins traded buckets on three straight possessions. With one minute left, Jordan Poole had his shot rejected by Maryland forward Bruno Fernando, his sixth block of the day (a career-high for the Angolan forward.) Brazdeikis grabbed the offensive board and Livers drained the three that proved to be the dagger, putting Michigan up 65-57 with under a minute to play.
The Wolverines win marked their fourth straight against Maryland and allowed them to notch a signature road win before facing what will be an incredibly hostile environment Saturday at the Breslin Center. In addition to Simpson, Brazdeikis, and Livers, Michigan saw solid starting production from all five starters as Jon Teske recorded another double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Jordan Poole finished with 12 points, including a pair of big baskets inside the paint while Simpson was on the bench.
The Wolverines played five minutes Sunday without Charles Matthews or Zavier Simpson against a Top 25 opponent and did the right things not to let the game get away from them. That is precisely what John Beilein needs to see from his team as one-and-done time approaches in less than two weeks. Sunday’s game was a fitting start to the madness of March as the Wolverines now look to finish the regular season on a high note with a win in East Lansing come Saturday.