DES MOINES, Iowa — As Michigan entered the halftime locker room with a tenuous four-point lead, John Beilein did not look like the coach of a team just 20 minutes away from its third consecutive Sweet Sixteen.
When Jordan Poole sent the Wolverines into halftime by firing up a contested three, all Beilein could do was turn to his bench — but no one in particular — and offer up a look of confusion. At the time, it was justified. Michigan (30-6 overall) had shot 13-for-30 from the field and 4-for-13 from three, allowing No. 10 seed Florida (20-16) to remain within striking distance.
But as Beilein walked into the locker room, he carried an air of positivity, sandwiching each criticism with positive reinforcement. And when he and the Wolverines returned an hour later, where there had been an intense half-time team talk, whoops and hollers filled the air, spilling over from a celebratory shower room after No. 2 Michigan’s 64-49 win over the Gators.
“We should be measured by a lot of things,” Beilein said. “This is one of them — did we get in the NCAA Tournament and then did we advance in the NCAA Tournament? That’s what my measuring stick will always be.”
Amid the celebratory postgame, the Wolverines harkened back to their halftime adjustments. Beilein praised his assistants. Assistant coach Luke Yaklich focused on the defensive resiliency. Sophomore forward CJ Baird credited the positivity Beilein instills.
Whatever the conclusion, the results were obvious.
As freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis fired up a three on the Wolverines’ first possession out of the break, it momentarily looked as if the second half would mirror the first. His shot clanged off the back of the rim, then the front, before popping above the basket as the heavily maize-and-blue clad crowd let out a collective sigh.
Then, the ball magically dropped back through the hoop, turning that sigh into a raucous ovation. With the ovation came a return of Michigan’s swagger.
“At first I thought it was good, but once it stopped bouncing around the rim, I was like, ‘Oh no, this might miss.’ And then I hit it so that was a bit of a relief for me,” Brazdeikis said. “… It definitely helped our rhythm for sure. Coming out of the half and scoring a big three is always huge.”
That swagger manifested as junior center Jon Teske followed the three by finding his way into the paint for a layup. Then, Poole finished through contact and buried the ensuing free throw, sending the Wolverines’ bench onto their feet. When Poole hit a step-back three 30 seconds later, Michigan’s once fragile lead had grown to 15 on the back of an 11-0 run.
The Gators’ resiliency, though, didn’t end there.
They drew back within six with a 9-0 run of their own that sent an air of palpable tension through Wells Fargo Arena as the Wolverines were forced into a 30-second timeout.
Moments later, a whistle came piercing through the building as Poole went crashing to the floor in front of Michigan’s bench. His 3-point attempt had smacked the front of the rim, but the foul call gave the Wolverines an opportunity to expand their lead back to nine. Poole — the subject of much of Beilein’s first-half frustration — calmly stepped to the line and did just that.
For the next seven minutes, the teams traded baskets, Florida wedging its foot in the door but never daring to enter. On the rare occasion that the Gators threatened — they managed just 21 points after halftime — the Wolverines responded with some buffer of their own.
“We hang our hats on defense,” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said. “Coach (Yaklich) does a great job. All our staff come together to see how we can stop their offense. And these guys right here, I give the credit to our players.”
With Michigan’s lead at 11 and the game’s final stretch teetering on becoming a formality, Zavier Simpson cocked the ball above his right shoulder and sliced a bounce pass through the Florida defense and into the hands of Isaiah Livers.
Between Livers and the basket stood Florida guard Andrew Nembhard, but not in Livers’ mind. The sophomore forward took to the air just beyond the restricted arc and delivered a two-hand slam over Nembhard, sending the arena into hysteria and — more importantly — the Wolverines into the Sweet Sixteen.
An hour later, as Haynes packed his bags and headed for the team bus, he, like the rest of the team, was met with congratulatory greetings from Kathleen Beilein, John’s wife.
By that point, there was just one thing left to say.
“Thanks, Mrs. B. We going to Cali!”