Last month in Evanston and again Sunday night, Zavier Simpson watched from the bench as his team closed out the final minutes of a victory.
Back in December, it was a condemnation, a weakness that had caught up to him. Northwestern left the junior guard open for three, knowing his shooting numbers were low and hoping to clog the lane to slow the offense.
It worked. Simpson went 0-for-5 from deep before being pulled with 6:24 remaining. Sophomore guard Eli Brooks ran the offense the rest of the way as the Michigan men’s basketball team pulled out a 62-60 nail-biter.
Sunday was a completely different story. Simpson left triumphant, an affront avenged. He had just made his fifth trey of the game. The Wolverines were up 20 points. It was time for the freshmen and walk-ons to ice the 80-60 victory.
His 3-pointer was a dagger, in more ways than one.
“(The first Northwestern game) was the first time anybody played that way and it sort of shocked him a little bit,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “ … He wasn’t as patient and he’s such a competitor. He saw that as a personal affront to his ability.”
From the beginning, it was clear that the Wildcats were sticking with their strategy. Six and a half minutes into the game, Northwestern left Simpson wide open from beyond the arc, leaving everyone else blocked. And even though it hadn’t worked last time, even though the whole team had shot terribly in Saturday’s practice, Simpson did the only thing there was to do: shoot the ball.
Junior center Jon Teske was waiting under the basket for the rebound. The ball came right back to Simpson.
Beilein decided it was time to intervene.
“Settle down, now,” Beilein prepared to say. “You’re going to shoot it when you go back in. Just settle down.”
Then, Simpson was open again. He shot again.
The basket was called back due to a Wildcat foul, but it didn’t matter. In that moment, Beilein knew that Simpson was going to be just fine.
Thirty seconds later, Simpson fired again from beyond the arc.
This time, it counted.
“I just had to keep shooting,” Simpson said. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t drop the right way. I felt like they was going to do the strategy because it worked last time, so what team wouldn’t? Again, I just have to do the things I’ve been doing, which is stay confident.”
Northwestern kept leaving him open. After all, what else was there to do? The Wildcats were down big — 22 points at halftime — and if they put a man on Simpson, it would be someone else who’d run up the score. It had worked before, and Northwestern had to bet on regression.
For Simpson, it was a taunt. A dare.
He added one more three before halftime, then went relatively quiet. But he wasn’t done.
Twelve minutes into the second half, Simpson stole the ball off a bad pass and hit another three. Then, with four minutes left, the final blow. He finished with 24 points, a career high. His 5-for-10 from deep wasn’t just a personal record for makes — it was a record for attempts, too.
After the game, Simpson was asked what he was thinking out there on the floor. He responded instantly.
“Shoot another one, make it,” Simpson said.
“Simple as that.”