STATE COLLEGE — The Michigan men’s basketball team ran out of the tunnel, but this time John Beilein did not join them.
Near the end of the Wolverines’ worst half of the season, Zavier Simpson fell, the recipient of a hard screen from Penn State’s Jamari Wheeler. Rasir Bolton, who Simpson had been guarding, easily flipped in a runner as time expired.
The Nittany Lions led, 40-27, and Beilein was fed up. Fed up with poor shooting. Fed up with sloppy ball control. Fed up with lackluster defense. And in this moment, fed up with the officials.
He shouted towards them and was hit with a technical foul in response. Then another.
For just the second time in his 41-year coaching career, Beilein was ejected.
One half after losing its head coach, Michigan lost its third game of the season — falling, 75-69, to Penn State (2-11 Big Ten, 9-15 overall).
“There will be some pretty interesting discussions with the Big Ten office,” Beilein said. “But what I will say is, you guys know I don’t get upset with officials.”
Beilein’s rare frustration was the culmination of 20 minutes of malaise for the sixth-ranked Wolverines (11-3, 22-3). It began when Wheeler caught the opening tip-off, raced to the basket, and laid in the first points of the night. Six minutes later, Lamar Stevens muscled home an and-one to put the Nittany Lions up, 17-9.
Stevens, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, was a menace, scoring with ease inside. Playing as a small-ball ‘5’, Stevens consistently beat the bigger Jon Teske, normally one of the nation’s best post defenders, to the tune of 26 points.
The Wolverines often go as their point guard goes, and for Simpson, it was a night to forget. Like many of Michigan’s opponents have done, Penn State sagged off the junior and dared him to beat them from outside. He couldn’t, missing all four of his first-half attempts.
Simpson’s decision-making, meanwhile, was at its worst. He had six turnovers, his errant passes often sailing deep into the stands. It wasn’t just Simpson — before Beilein’s ejection, the picture of the Wolverines’ first half was Charles Matthews, arms outstretched, exasperated at sophomore guard Eli Brooks for being out of position to collect a pass.
“Credit Penn State,” Beilein said. “They got us out of sync. They’ve gone to more of a downhill attack, they’re more of an isolation team, they just isolate, isolate, isolate. And at the other end, their press, they can turn you over, and the switching of every ball screen was brilliant.”
With assistant Saddi Washington taking over the head coaching duties at halftime, the Wolverines fought their way back. Eight minutes into the half, they went on a 12-2 run to cut their deficit to five, capped off with a Matthews turnaround in the lane.
Matthews did all he could, mixing three treys with his usual repertoire of mid-range jumpers to keep Michigan in striking distance. He scored 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting, looking very much like the player who willed the Wolverines to a win over Wisconsin last Saturday. After a Nittany Lion spurt, he splashed a 3-pointer with a hand in his face, making the score 60-54 with five minutes left.
But Stevens kept Michigan at bay by swatting away two transition layups in a row, and with 3:19 remaining, Mike Watkins placed the dagger with a turnaround over Teske. From there, the Nittany Lions salted away the upset at the foul line.
“They punked us,” Matthews said. “They punked us. Simple as that. They outrebounded us by 10. Twelve offensive rebounds — you’re not winning a game giving a team 12 offensive rebounds.”
For the Nittany Lions, it was the high point in a down season. For the Wolverines, it was the third time they trudged away as euphoric students rushed the court.
But this time — from a once-in-a-blue-moon ejection, to being handled by a conference bottom-dweller — was by far the most unexpected.