NEW YORK CITY, NY — It felt like a scene out of a movie.
Jon Teske — the Michigan men’s basketball team’s placid, soft-spoken center — gathered his momentum outside the block, leapt and threw down an emphatic, and-one dunk. Put on a poster was Purdue’s Isaac Haas, a seven-foot-two, 290-pound behemoth who makes a living bullying others in the paint.
But here was Teske, the polar opposite of his demonstrative teammate Mortiz Wagner, doing the bullying on the biggest, tallest player in the Big Ten. And it happened on the biggest stage nonetheless; the lights of a championship game at Madison Square Garden can melt the composure of even the most poised players.
Teske doesn’t ooze that type of swagger. His teammates and coaches have publicly noted his “quiet” demeanor and need for more confidence on the floor.
But after Teske generated one of the most shocking highlights of the Big Ten Tournament, he looked like he was born for it, vaulting down the floor with a thunderous scream that was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Duncan Robinson, meanwhile, jumped twice in jubilation. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman first-pumped like he was throwing a punch. The bench exploded like a fire had been lit under the chairs.
“I’m a quiet guy,” Teske said. “That passion, my love for the game kind of all spilled out.”
Added freshman forward Isaiah Livers: “Oh my. Even though my ankle was hurt, I shot up as fast as I could and was grabbing my head like, ‘Did he really just do that?’ Because usually he’ll go up, do a little layup, get fouled. But he was thinking dunk the whole time. He was hunting.”
Hunting is not Teske’s M.O. His influence isn’t typically reflected in the box score, even though he’s been an essential part of Michigan’s defensive turnaround this season. He came into the tournament averaging just over three points and three rebounds per game.
But on Sunday, Teske got a vote of confidence from one of his teammates, and it might’ve been the difference.
“Today’s your day, man, ” Livers recalled telling Teske. “It’s a great matchup today so if you want to be a dog, I got you today.”
Haas was too much for Wagner early. He scored Purdue’s first seven points and forced the eventual tournament MVP to the bench just over two minutes in. At that point, Michigan coach John Beilein yelled down his bench. He and the Wolverines needed Teske more than ever.
The backup center came through. Just moments after he’d subbed for Wagner, Teske cleaned up his own miss for his first bucket of the afternoon. Then he and Abdur-Rahkman executed a pick-and-roll to perfection, diving into the lane for a dunk that eliminated the Boilermakers’ final lead of the evening.
And with the Wolverines nursing a one-point lead late in the first half, Teske and Robinson ran the pick-and-roll again, but this time Teske stopped and popped a 10-footer. Less than a minute later, he a took a pass from redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews and hit from just inside the arc — no hesitation involved.
Chants of “Teske! Teske! Teske!” filled the Garden.
The pair of connections were emblematic of Teske’s growth since the start of his collegiate career. Teske played just 60 minutes all of last season. It was spurt here, a spurt there, never having the chance the make an impact. He looked uncomfortable — even timid — on his rare chances.
But on Sunday, he would let it fly on a shot he’s only attempted a handful of times this season — part of a career-high 14-point effort on 6-of-9 shooting.
“It’s been an ongoing thing throughout the year, pushing him to play bigger than his quiet voice kind of allows him to sometimes,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “I’m just so happy for Jon because in this moment, when we really needed him to step up, he did it in a major way.”
Added Livers: “I think he needed the confidence, he needed the ‘go.’ He was waiting on the ‘go’ from coaches, but we’ve got his back so whatever he chooses to do, we’re right there with him.”
Beilein has attached pictures of dogs to the Wolverines’ locker room whiteboard at various point over the past two championship seasons. It’s a mentality he desires his each of his players to carry — one that defies Michigan’s historical reputation as a skill-based, finesse team.
Teske is no finesse player. He’s a Midwest-born bruiser. But Teske hasn’t adopted that “dog” mindset like some of teammates — at least until Sunday.
Repeatedly, he frustrated Haas and center Matt Haarms defensively, offering resistance that few opponents have been able to match this season.
“I’m just happy he chose the dog route today,” Livers said, “rather than the old Jon.”
Nothing embodied that more than Teske’s dunk over Haas.
It was a moment that surprised many, carried the arena into near-pandemonium and made the championship’s result clear with the Wolverines gripping an 18-point lead with just over six minutes to play.
And for Teske, it was a moment two years in the making. Finally, he’d broken out of his shell on the floor — on the biggest stage against the one of the country’s best centers.
“Our players were like in awe,” Washington said. “It was almost like he had elevated himself to that next level. The challenge for him will be, ‘You set a new level for yourself, now play at that level.’ ”