Three weeks ago in Madison, Michigan’s undefeated season lay in the balance of a one-point game with seven minutes to play. That time, the Wolverines’ offense wilted, scoring just 10 points over the remainder of the gane and falling, 64-54, at the hands of the Badgers.
So on Saturday afternoon against the same opponent, when Michigan was faced with a near-identical situation up one with 7:13 to go, the question became how it would avoid a repeat of the final score. But just as soon as the predicament had manifested itself, Charles Matthews — one of the biggest culprits in the Wolverines’ loss last month with three turnovers, two fouls and just two field goals in the second half — provided a solution.
Midway through the second half, Wisconsin’s offense started clicking for the first time all afternoon, demanding that someone on Michigan answer the call — a situation that would normally call for sophomore guard Jordan Poole or freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis to take over.
But as those two combined to go 5-for-20 from the field, Matthews put the kind of stamp on the game that, for him, has been restricted to the defensive end for the better part of the past two years. It’s what Michigan coach John Beilein envisioned for Matthews when he transferred from Kentucky three years ago as highly-touted, former five-star recruit. But as consistent as his defensive impact has been, Matthews’ offense has only grazed the expectations set by those lofty high school accolades.
“I never doubted myself,” Matthews said. “I understand as a player you go through those times. It’s going to be more times in my career when I have bad games. I have a lot of basketball left in me. I never got discouraged and continued to shoot my way out of it, any bad moment.”
The game’s defining moment will be Matthews winding the shot clock down with 30 seconds to go and a five-point lead, daring Wisconsin to stop him before hitting a step-back, fadeaway jumper to seal an eventual 61-52 win.
That, though, was merely a culmination of the preceding 11 minutes, in which Matthews went 7-of-8 from the field, scored 14 points and fell three points short of single-handedly outscoring the Badgers.
“With most players, it’s very contagious,” Beilein said. “Just make a shot, and all of a sudden, you say, ‘Man, I got it. I got it going.’ Make two, ‘I got it going.’ You miss two or three in the row, it’s really hard to make the fourth, fifth, sixth. There’s no magic in that either. He made shots and then all of a sudden, he made more shots.”
The stretch began with 11:22 to play, when Matthews — who had scored just four points over the game’s first 29 minutes — answered a Kobe King jumper with a driving layup. As Wisconsin responded with baskets on its next two possessions, so too did Matthews, keeping the Badgers at arm’s length as they threatened to take their first lead of the second half.
Matthews’ baskets came during a stretch when none of his teammates could find bottom, finishing a combined 2-for-10 over the final 14 minutes. It’s a reversal of roles for Matthews, who often frustrates in these moments — as he did in that loss in Madison — stifling Michigan’s offense with ambitious mid-range jumpers and poor decision making.
“It’s definitely a huge boost being able to have a guy like Charles go against — utilize his mismatch,” Poole said. “Especially when he gets going, being able to give it to a guy in the post when he’s able to go to his go-to shot and knock it down is definitely huge.”
This time, though, it was his teammates providing the frustration. With three minutes to play and Michigan holding a tenuous three-point lead, Poole and junior point guard Zavier Simpson jacked up a pair of contested threes on consecutive possession, sending an irritated Beilein’s hands into the air with each miss.
But when Matthews caught the ball at the top of the arc amidst a two-minute scoring drought with a 1:30 to play, that frustration quickly disappeared. He drove to his right, pulled up over Nate Reuvers and let go. And for the sixth time in ten minutes, the ball swished through the net.
So when he pulled up for that jumper a minute later with a chance to ice the game, the expectation was — for once — that it would fall through. And as it had all afternoon, it did.