Charles Matthews went to the free-throw line with 1:50 left in the first half with his team down by five. At that point, he was just 2-for-6 from the charity stripe.
But the redshirt junior wing didn’t let it faze him. He sunk both free throws to the loudest cheers Crisler Center had seen all day.
Two possessions later, Matthews stole the ball from a Western Michigan player and drove down the court for an easy layup. And with just three seconds left in the half, Matthews grabbed a defensive board and hit another driving layup at the buzzer to give the Michigan men’s basketball team its first lead of the game.
Up to that point, Matthews had seven points, four missed shots, four missed free throws and two turnovers. It seemed like just another uninspiring performance in an uninspiring game for the Wolverines. But after contributing eight points to a 10-0 Michigan run at the end of the half, Matthews finished with a double-double — 25 points, 10 rebounds and an 11-for-16 performance from the line to boot — and became the key cog in the Wolverines’ 70-62 win Saturday.
“He’s an extreme talent. He's extremely athletic, able to get to the basket whenever he wants to, he was being aggressive today,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “He was able to get to the free-throw line and being able to knock down a lot of free throws, and I feel like that’s kind of what got him going from the first half to the second half. But that's Charles. He has extreme confidence and he has a lot of games of being able to take over like he did today.”
After Matthews sparked the Wolverines at the end of the first half, they tried to get the ball in his hands as much as possible in the second. And when that happened, the Broncos struggled to find any answers. Matthews drove to the hoop seemingly at will, and if he couldn’t make a shot, he was able to draw a whistle.
Matthews was frequently matched up against Western Michigan wing Josh Davis, but Davis was unable to guard Matthews without fouling. Davis sat most of the second half with four fouls before fouling out with 2:41 left — and to add insult to injury, both of Matthews’ subsequent free throws swished in.
“I think he’s never one that is gonna turn down an opportunity to hunt,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “ … He did a great job tonight of fighting through defenders to get to the rim and didn’t get fouls. But Davis, he’s a really good player, he took him out of the game by getting him in foul trouble. That was a big part of his game.”
Toward the end of the game, Beilein realized the Wolverines might have to win from the charity stripe if the Broncos elected to intentionally foul — an unfamiliar situation for a team that has won the majority of its games in blowouts. Beilein’s plan, should that happen, was to get Poole the ball and put him on the line. But if that didn’t work out, he figured freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, normally Michigan’s second-best free-throw shooter, would be the next option.
Then he remembered how good Matthews had been from the stripe the entire game, even after his cold start.
“I was ready to make (Brazdeikis) the second option,” Beilein said. “And then I realized that Iggy was 0-3 and … made Charles the second option. We didn’t throw it to him but it, I had that type of trust in him.”
And while he didn’t get to the line in the waning minutes, he did hit a 3-pointer that extended the Wolverines’ lead to eight with 1:13 remaining and provided Michigan with vital breathing room.
In a game that more often than not consisted of missed shots, sloppy play and an inability to sustain momentum, Matthews at first continued the trend. But right when the Wolverines needed him the most, he stepped up.
And by the final buzzer, nobody remembered his ugly beginning.
“You have your oldest and most veteran player, fourth year in college, be in there, and because he was not good at the beginning,” Beilein said. “And down the stretch, we tried to get the ball into his hands as much as we could.”