SAN ANTONIO, Texas — After the game, Jordan Poole sat by his locker with the radiant smile that hasn’t left his face since February.
A television reporter asked Poole what he’ll say to himself when he looks in the mirror Saturday night, knowing he was going to the national title game. For the uber-confident, ever-boisterous Poole, this is his favorite type of question.
“I’m gonna be like, ‘I look good,’ ya feel me?”
There isn’t much with Jordan Poole you don’t see.
His excitement comes across with every highlight-reel play. His personality shines through with every interview and every new water-related pun that surfaces by the day. When he smiles, you see his clear braces, a fresh reminder that the 18-year-old’s exuberance is still very much youthful. When he gets straddled to the bench for a careless turnover or ill-advised shot, you see the frustration. When he hit the shot, you saw him run into the Wichita night.
But as his team headed to the locker room down, 29-22, in the national semifinal, stifled by a swarming Loyola-Chicago defense and frustratingly listless offensive showing, it was Poole who stepped up.
This time, behind the scenes.
“We work so hard and everybody on this team is a really good player,” Poole said. “We work behind the scenes and we know what we’re capable of doing. Sometimes, if things aren’t going our way, I know how really good players think. You kinda get down, and you can be a little bit negative. But at this time, it’s bigger than yourself. You know what I’m saying?”
Twenty minutes from an aggravating ending to a magical run, halftime would seem the opportune time for a veteran leader to take a vocal stance. Instead, Poole took initiative in the downtrodden locker room.
“Jordan is not a veteran at all, actually,” said junior forward Brent Hibbits. “But Jordan Poole went through each player at halftime and said, like, what they were gonna do better in the second half.”
Added fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons: “He really, literally, went around each player, especially the starters,”
He approached fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson.
Duncan, you haven’t been shooting well this first half, but you’re going to come out in the second half and make shots.
Robinson, a team captain in his own right, scored all nine of his points in the second half, including two key 3-pointers in the late comeback.
Next was Charles Matthews.
Charles, keep being aggressive. Land on two feet in the paint. Just take over.
Matthews finished with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, a continuing resurgence from the redshirt sophomore who has been vital to Michigan’s postseason success.
Then came Moritz Wagner, the junior responsible for half of the Wolverines’ first-half points.
Moe, keep being a beast down there, they obviously can’t stop you.
And they didn’t stop Wagner, who danced, dunked and dominated his way to just the third Final-Four performance of 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Next, Poole went straight to Zavier Simpson, the comandeering point guard who entered the halftime locker room as frustrated as anyone, going 0-for-3 in the first half with three turnovers.
X, you’re going to lock the other team’s point guard up the entire second half.
The freshman told senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to just relax, that his shots would come. He told Isaiah Livers, his roommate, to get involved in the game, to be aggressive in his minutes and to continue doing the simple things.
In the second half, the Wolverines scored 47 points, shooting 57 percent from the field to win 69-57. They forced an overwhelmed Loyola squad into 10 second-half turnovers, holding the Ramblers to just 22 points.
Michigan will play Villanova on Monday night for a national title, and it has a second-half blitz — and some halftime words of encouragment from a confident freshman leader — to thank for that.
“It’s impressive, it really is,” Hibbits said. “Such a big stage, and such a young kid. I mean, he’s only 18 or 19 years old. Obviously he’s never been here before. But for him to have a perspective about it himself really helped the older guys realize, you know, Jordan Poole, this outgoing, emotional, young dude is having a lot of confidence going into the second half. We should, too.”
This was more than a teammate offering words of encouragement for his struggling team. It was a freshman growing into a role he knew he could own.
“It’s leadership,” Livers said. “He can be a natural leader, and he can be a natural freshman. I think at this stage now, he’s going to obviously take that leadership (role). He may even be a captain next year. … I won’t be surprised.”
Poole played four minutes in the first half, just the eighth-most on the team, before offering an on-court spark with six second-half points of his own. Poole’s role has fluctuated as much as anyone throughout the year, with Saturday’s national semifinal being no different. That didn’t stop him from taking the reigns of a team 20 minutes from its end.
It’s a moment that won’t accompany his game-winner on this year’s “One Shining Moment” but may well be just as important. You can quantify a shot. You can’t quantify leadership.
“I don’t think I played too much in the first half, but I know that Moe was going to start hitting shots and (Abdur-Rahkman) was going to start getting to the basket,” Poole said. “If you go out there with a positive mindset and speak it into existence, everything is going to go well.
“That’s what happened when we went out for the second half.”