COLLEGE PARK — John Beilein walked into the Xfinity Center media room, cracked a smile and told reporters that they had witnessed “just such a terrific basketball game.”
For all the achievements No. 9 Michigan (26-4 overall, 15-4 Big Ten) earned in its 25-4 start, that’s not something that its head coach has often been able to say away from the Crisler Center. But Sunday afternoon, the Wolverines beat No. 17 Maryland (21-9, 12-7), 69-62, to notch the signature road win that had eluded them since beating Villanova in mid-November.
Despite the early lead, the trip to College Park was never pretty for Michigan, as the teams traded blows for much of the first 30 minutes. Then, with 11 minutes remaining and the Terrapins clinging to a 43-41 lead, Beilein called for junior guard Zavier Simpson, who had spent the previous seven minutes on the bench with three fouls.
Five minutes later, Maryland had yet to score another point. What was a two-point deficit when Simpson entered became a five-point lead — the largest for either team in nearly ten minutes.
“When (Simpson)’s in the game, it’s not just him guarding his man,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “He does all the intangibles. … His presence is huge when he’s on the court.”
The game could have easily gotten out of hand for Michigan in the first half, as it shot just 34.5 percent from the field and 9.1 percent from three before the break. The Wolverines, though, battled through a back-and-forth half rife with trips to the foul line and scrappy possessions, never letting the Terrapins extend their lead past six.
“Our defense plays with some maturity, on most occasions,” Beilein said. “And we played with that and we were able to just get enough stops, even when shots weren’t falling.”
And when junior center Jon Teske crashed to the glass off a missed three from Simpson, rose his right hand above all challengers and tipped in with 2:16 to play in the half, the Wolverines had their first lead of the afternoon.
It wouldn’t last.
Four minutes into the second half, with the energy inside the Xfinity Center building to a crescendo, Bruno Fernando rose above the rim to swat Jordan Poole’s layup attempt off the backboard and spring the Terrapins into transition. Moments later, Jalen Smith slammed home, giving Maryland its first lead in nearly ten minutes.
Every time the Terrapins sent the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, Michigan responded wasted no time in silencing it, part of a back-and-forth battle that lasted until that 7-0 run put the Wolverines up 48-43 with 7:59 to play.
“This was one of the toughest road games I think we’ve had all season,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “We played at … some tough places to play and I would definitely rank Maryland being the toughest place to play so far this season.”
Maryland cut the deficit to three on a pair of free throws a minute later but then, the 3-point shooting that had eluded Michigan all day came to life, quieting the raucous home crowd for good.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — who finished with a game-high 21 points — responded to the free throws with a dagger three from the right wing. And when Teske buried a pick-and-pop three to put the Wolverines up nine with three minutes to play, Michigan finally had the separation it spent 37 minutes searching for.
“We gotta live and die with (threes) right now, but (Teske) hit a big one,” Beilein said. “This was the same as the game at our place. Couldn’t make a shot. When we need one, keep shooting.”
From there, the two teams returned to the basket-trading that had defined much of the game. For Maryland, it was too late.
And, as an arena that had spent an afternoon in boisterous support of the Terrapins filled with chants of “Let’s Go Blue,” Michigan finally had its trademark road win.
“Silencing them and hearing that,” Brazdeikis said, “there’s not a better feeling in the world.”