The long rebound eventually found its way to Zavier Simpson and only one thing seemed to be on his mind: Look up.
Cocking his right arm back like a quarterback, the senior point guard rifled a one-handed pass through the arms of the retreating Tar Heels into the hands of Eli Brooks. With a wide open lane welcoming him, the 6-foot-1 Brooks rose up and flushed it.
Just four minutes into the second half and things were getting out of hand.
Though the Tar Heels would claw their way back late in the second half, the Michigan men’s basketball team (6-0), held on to hand No. 6 North Carolina (5-1) its first loss of the season, 73-64, behind a second-half offensive explosion.
After absorbing a 13-4 run initiated by the Tar Heels’ freshman sensation Cole Anthony, the Wolverines righted the ship. Two three-pointers from veterans Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers helped cut the deficit to just four with 11:38 remaining in the first half.
From there, Michigan only improved. Thanks to junior guard Eli Brooks’ hot-hand from deep and a few North Carolina turnovers on the other end, the Wolverines regained the lead — one they would never relinquish.
Anthony, the Tar Heels’ offensive catalyst, wasn’t as efficient as the half wore on shooting 1-of-5 after a 3-for-4 start. Adversely, Michigan’s collective effort offensively paid dividends.
With Simpson picking up two quick fouls, Michigan coach Juwan Howard had to rely on David DeJulius to close out the first half at point guard. DeJulius responded, scoring six of his 11 points in the span of 39 seconds off two transition layups.
“Coach is always talking about a next-man-up mentality,” DeJulius said. “It was big shoes to fill because Zavier’s a great player and the leader of our team. Eli and I decided to lead the team and stayed connected.”
Michigan had also yet to face a team with the Tar Heels’ size. Though senior center Jon Teske and sophomore forward Colin Castleton only contributed four points each in the first half, their play defensively kept North Carolina bigs Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks relatively quiet. By halftime, the Wolverines held a 10-point advantage in the paint and a five-point advantage overall.
The first half might have been relatively even, but the start of the second half was not.
Michigan came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders. Whether it was off a missed shot or a turnover, the Wolverines seized every opportunity to get out on the fastbreak.
On consecutive sequences, Brooks and freshman forward Franz Wagner stationed themselves on the wing and hit open threes. Teske even got in on the act, converting from beyond the arc with Garrison Brooks sagging off on him.
“We were making shots but we were also defending,” Howard said. “It was a carryover from our defense. We were able to keep them to one-shot opportunities. We wanted to hit the glass and then as we got stops, ‘Go.’ Try to go for layups, open threes and make the extra pass — share the game.”
Within the blink of an eye, Michigan led, 60-36. With momentum in hand and the Tar Heels bereft of offensive production, the Wolverines were overflowing with confidence.
With its back against the wall, North Carolina managed to stop the onslaught. Even more aggressive than the first half, Anthony — who finished with 22 points — led the way.
Michigan went cold from deep and with 5:11 left in the game, Simpson fouled out. The Tar Heels whittled the deficit to single-digits, but two big baskets — a three-pointer and a running layup — by Livers provided the Wolverines with enough breathing room to close it out.
“It’s a big win,” Howard said. “But it was two big wins. We came here to win three. We have one more game to play. I know our guys trust and believe they’re a connected group, are going to compete from start to finish and are going to trust one another.”