SAN ANTONIO, Texas — After the final buzzer sounded, Charles Matthews was the last player to climb down the elevated floor and swagger his way to the concrete underbelly of the Alamodome. Many of his teammates, smiling from ear-to-ear and yelling at full throat, had chosen to go through a line of high-fives with Michigan students. Moritz Wagner even jumped to meet the hands draped over the railing above, reenacting an NBA combine vertical test.
Matthews took a different approach. He trotted down the steps, showed the camera the name across the front of his bright-maize jersey and sashayed down the tunnel unbothered. His chin pointed high, he molded a half-smiled smirk. It was a look of confidence — one of those, “I’m good, and I know it,” faces.
Matthews breathed that moxie throughout Saturday. The redshirt sophomore guard scored 17 points, grabbed five boards and added three steals against the darlings of his hometown Chicago, helping to send the Michigan men’s basketball team to the national championship.
“Charles was a beast,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “We see him like that all the time in practice. I was wondering when it was going to come out again, and it came out at the right time.”
It came out early. When the Ramblers switched a screen on the Wolverines’ second possession, Matthews found himself in a glaring mismatch against Ramblers’ center Cameron Krutwig. Matthews knew what to do: Jab step, pump fake and then pop it for Michigan’s first three points. Five minutes later, he drove inside and sunk a layup with a foul, “mean mugging” as he swaggered across the baseline in celebration.
“We feel like we’re at our best when he’s aggressive,” said fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, “and that’s been the case all season.”
Matthews was essentially one of two consistent options for the Wolverines offensively, as the rest of the team desperately struggled to hit shots. As such, Matthews was the go-to option when Loyola clung to a seven-point lead early in the second half, slashing his way to a pair of scores to keep things close.
“I really saw an intense look in his eyes — he really wanted to win,” said freshman guard C.J. Baird. “Nobody was going to let anybody stop him.”
Wagner, of course, eventually charged the comeback for the Wolverines, finishing with a monstrous 24-point, 15-rebound performance. But it was Matthews who helped Wagner and the Wolverines get there.
Up a nickel, Matthews penetrated and collapsed the defense, then kicked to a wide-open Wagner outside, who essentially put the game away with just over 3:03 to go.
And if it wasn’t over then, it certainly was two minutes later when Matthews punctuated his night with a two-handed tomahawk jam.
“It’s the big stage. Charles has been waiting for this for a while,” Livers said. “He transferred from one of the top-tier teams in the country, and he comes here wanting to do that same thing. He’s going to put on a show no matter what.”
There were long stretches where Matthews was far from that. After leading the Wolverines in scoring during non-conference play, his play halted in January and February. Matthews pressed, settling for contested fadaways and low-percentage two-pointers. He traveled like clockwork, his feet shuffling instead of moving in harmony.
Things hit rock bottom when Matthews went scoreless against Penn State in February — a surprising turn for a player who was once Michigan’s leading scorer. Coach John Beilein thought Matthews wasn’t playing with much confidence.
But Matthews has certainly found it in the NCAA Tournament. He had 31 combined points in the first two rounds, then 35 and a West Regional MVP Award in the second weekend.
“This young man has done such a good job of just growing as a player,” Beilein said. “And it’s showing off every day that he goes out there.
“His future is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.”
Saturday was still Wagners’ night. But Matthews was undoubtedly essential to Michigan’s win, playing Robin to Wagner’s Batman along the way.
And if his walk off the floor is any indication, Mattthews is perfectly okay with that.