Simpson, bench lead Wolverines past Iowa

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - 10:33pm

Throughout the season, the point guard position has been a source of limited production for the Michigan men’s basketball team.

In their previous game, freshman Eli Brooks and sophomore Zavier Simpson combined for just two points on three shot attempts facing a far-inferior Jacksonville team.

But on Tuesday night, Simpson played the best game of his college career, tallying 15 points and 7 assists to lead the Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) to a 75-68 win over Iowa (0-3, 9-7) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“We got after him a little bit after (Jacksonville),” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He didn’t guard his man, and we challenged him to go out and play better. He’s that type of guy who need to bring it every night.

“He works in the gym so much to hit those 3s that we needed to have.”

Simpson’s productivity was joined by that of freshman forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore center Jon Teske — three bench players that were key Tuesday night. 

Livers scored a career-high 13 points, and filled in nicely on the defensive end guarding Iowa forward Tyler Cook. 

And with junior center Moritz Wagner still knocking off rust from a ankle injury, Teske was also effective in limiting the Hawkeyes’ frontcourt down the stretch.

“Our bench really was solid today because Moe and Duncan really didn’t have some of the things (they usually have today),” Beilein said. “Our bench was the difference today.”

The same could be said about the Wolverines’ shooting performance. Michigan shot 49 percent from the floor and knocked down 11 triples — including eight in the first half.

“We shot so well tonight,” Beilein said. “If we missed some of those shots, I might have a different story to tell right now. But we played extraordinarily well as far as shooting the ball.” 

Despite the shooting boost, however, Michigan’s victory didn’t come easily. 

With just over 10 minutes to go, the Hawkeyes went on an 11-3 run to close its deficit to just six. And after leading by as many as 18 points, the eeriness of Michigan’s collapse at Ohio State last month crept in.

“That’s all we talk about all season,” Livers said. “That we can’t come out here in the second half and let them come hit us. We’ve got to hit them before they hit us. I think that’s going to help us going forward in the season.”

But, fittingly, it was Simpson who stopped the bleeding. With a layup that beat the shot clock and an assist to senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, he sparked the Wolverines to a 9-0 stretch that put the possibility of another Big Ten loss out of question.

With an augmented command of the offense and a 6-for-9 effort from the field, Simpson was instrumental in creating the ball movement Beilein previously said Michigan lacked with the Ohio native on the floor.

“We wanted him to see the floor better,” Beilein said, “and he did that tonight.”

But like Saturday, it was another slow start for the Wolverines, who coughed up five turnovers before the game’s first media timeout, including two traveling calls against redshirt sophomore forward Charles Matthews.

But with the Hawkeyes struggling to find twine, Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson each knocked down a pair of 3s to launch Michigan to a 15-point advantage midway through the frame.

That would set the tone for eight made triples from six different Wolverines in the first half.

And with a 62-percent shooting performance on 15 assists, Michigan would take a 49-36 lead into the break.

That was despite quiet performances from Wagner and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson, who combined for just seven points in 29 minutes.

“(Wagner) is just not right,” Beilein said. He was tender on the ankle, but now he’s fine. He just needs to get his rhythm back. ... And I’m concerned about him because we need Moe Wagner.”

And for a few minutes in the first half, the Hawkeyes exploited Wagner’s uncharacteristic game. With an 11-0 run, Iowa closed its deficit to single-digits early into the second frame.

But just as he did later in the half, it was Simpson who ended the run, wiggling his way into the paint for an easy score.