For 20 minutes, Michigan’s offense was dead and its defense was porous. For 20 minutes, Holy Cross posed questions the Wolverines couldn’t answer.
Then the second half happened.
It wasn’t always easy — the Michigan men’s basketball team (2-0 overall) often struggled against the Crusaders (1-1) and their Princeton offense and matchup-zone defense — but the Wolverines pulled away in the second half for a 56-37 win.
Both teams traded missed shots back and forth to start — neither scored until freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis made a free throw with 17:08 remaining in the first. Then, they swapped baskets, with an inside jumper from Brazdeikis giving Michigan an early 9-5 advantage.
But the Wolverines didn’t score for almost four more minutes. To make matters worse, defensive lapses led to three open treys for Holy Cross to put the Crusaders up 18-9 at the under-12 timeout.
A few minutes later, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews hit a 3-pointer off a turnover to narrow Holy Cross’ lead to four, but for the rest of the half — over 10 minutes — Michigan’s only points came off free throws from Matthews, Livers and sophomore guard Jordan Poole. Going into halftime, the Crusaders led 24-18.
“(Michigan coach John Beliein) was just telling us to be calm, this is what we expected,” Brazdeikis said. “We prepared for this team very well. We knew they were gonna be in a matchup zone. And we knew they were gonna play a slow-paced game. But he was just saying, attack the seams, make our shots and make good plays.”
And after the half, the Wolverines started to make those plays. Brazdeikis led the charge with two layups, a trey, four free throws and a mid-range jumper in the first five minutes. When junior center Jon Teske received a pass from junior guard Zavier Simpson, beat his lone defender to the basket and threw down a dunk, it felt like the momentum had shifted.
“We really changed what we were doing offensively,” Beilein said. “We were probably trying to do too much, trying to create leverage, and we just really simplified our attack in the second half. And just tried to, just go off penetration.”
In the second half it was Holy Cross that couldn’t buy a bucket. The Crusaders went seven minutes without scoring and struggled to even get a shot off due to Michigan’s stifling defense. Holy Cross scored just 13 points in the half and committed nine turnovers.
“(We got) some open shots and some easy baskets, and they were missing some things that maybe normally they make in the first half,” said Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody. “And then the second half they just, they turned up the heat. … We had some empty possessions on offense and then we just weren’t able to handle anything with the pressure.”
It was still ugly at times for the Wolverines. But Matthews and Brazdeikis took a more aggressive approach than they had at the beginning and it paid off, as they finished with 20 and 19 points, respectively. And even when its shooting was off, Michigan’s uncharacteristically good performance on free throws kept the lead comfortable. Brazdeikis, especially, took advantage, going 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.
For the final 20 minutes, Michigan’s defense stole the show while the offense did just enough to hold up its end of the deal.
And for the final 20 minutes, it was the Crusaders who couldn’t find any answers.