ANAHEIM, Calif. — Charles Matthews stood at the line and made the free-throw motion. He buried his head in his shirt for a second. Missed the first free throw. Bent his knees, stayed in that position for an extra beat as his teammates subbed out. Sunk the second free throw.
Then, he made his exit.
Matthews didn’t even see the crowd rise to its feet, applauding the captain who had done so much for the Michigan basketball program. He kept his head down.
“I know it was over with,” he said.
He was talking about the game, a 63-44 thud of a loss to Texas Tech that ended an otherwise successful 30-7 season. But there was an even bigger sense of finality to it.
Matthews says he hasn’t thought about the looming NBA decision yet. So do his teammates. They don’t fully admit what most around the program have known for months, but as Matthews sat on the bench for the rest of the game, crying into a towel on the sideline, it felt like the end in so many more ways than one.
Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said, “He had a hell of a career.” According to sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, “He said it was his last year.” And Michigan coach John Beilein admitted himself after the game, “Charles will graduate, so we expect him to go pro.”
This was it for him, and everybody knew it, even when it wasn’t said. But even as his career flashed before his eyes, Matthews did everything he could to fight for what remained.
At halftime, when the Wolverines left the floor with just 16 points, Matthews saw the frustration instantly. It was all over his face, too. He offered his own brand of stern encouragement.
“Just don’t quit,” he said. “Whatever you do, just don’t quit.”
As the game slipped further and further away, he did the same.
“The way he was coming to the huddle,” Haynes said. “Just getting up in everybody, say, ‘We gotta continue to fight. There’s a lot of time left on the clock.’ ”
In the second half, even as his team wilted under the pressure of the Red Raiders’ defense, Matthews kept fighting. When he couldn’t get anything from the field either, he found his way to the line, where he made 6-of-8 free throws. He scored 12 points — eight in the second half — grabbed four boards and kept Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver under 50 percent shooting.
And afterwards, he took responsibility, refusing to answer whether the Red Raiders were the best defense his team had seen. All he said was that Michigan didn’t make shots.
Really, it was just an extension of the person Matthews has been all year. He used to be the quiet guy, but as a captain this season, he found his voice. At the rough practices, the ones where no one wanted to be there and they showed it, Matthews’ was the voice everyone heard, telling others to speak up, telling them that they could make the shot, telling them to keep going, telling them to be accountable.
“It’s just a major thing when a guy gives his all,” Livers said. “ … He was just a very good captain, man. He had a handle on us the whole season.”
This wasn’t supposed to be the way his career ended, not after coming back at the last minute when he tested the NBA draft waters last spring. Not when he was clear from the beginning that he was there to win a national championship. Not when everyone knew that he would soon leave for bigger and better things.
But the whole thing was bittersweet, because really, Matthews made the team in his image — tough, defense-minded, competitive until the very end. Without that, maybe the Wolverines wouldn’t have been in the Sweet Sixteen in the first place.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” Matthews said. “But we found a way. Plenty of times we got some wins that was questionable. And this team always found a way to make it up.”
That’s Charles Matthews: not always pretty, but he found a way.
After the final buzzer, Matthews left the floor, walking through the tunnel with sophomore guard Jordan Poole’s arm draped around him and a towel over his head. When he got into the locker room, Haynes had a message.
“You don’t need to put your head down. The reason why we’re here is because of you.”