Charles Matthews stood outside the away locker room at the Bryce Jordan Center, surrounded by a swarm of reporters. Coming off a Big Ten career-high 24-point performance — the latest entry in the redshirt junior’s most impressive stretch in months — it was a logical scene.
This time, though, Matthews’ showing came with the caveat that Michigan had just fallen 75-69 to the conference’s hapless doormat. So, amid a run of games in which Matthews has shown glimpses of what the Wolverines have always envisioned he could be, his postgame comments did not carry the celebratory tone to match.
“All of y’all flattered by scoring points, that shit don’t matter.”
It’s a continuation of a theme for Matthews. After a loss, he doesn’t want to hear about the positives. After a win — like when his buzzer-beater helped Michigan past Minnesota three weeks ago — he rarely wants to hear about the negatives.
“I’m not a huge fan of the slogan ‘ugly wins,’ ” Matthews said after that game. “I just feel like you’re going against good teams and you can’t blow everybody out. I feel like if you can survive these ones, these are quality wins. You’ve got to be able to gut them out.”
The problem for the Wolverines on Tuesday was that they put themselves in too big of a hole to simply “gut out” a win. They went down eight just six minutes in, a deficit that became 16 with three made technical free throws to start the second half. Winning would have required their biggest comeback of the season.
That comeback, though, almost came early in the second period. With 15:32 to play, the shot clock winding down and Michigan’s hopes dwindling with it, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers buried a three to pull the Wolverines within 12. Seven minutes later, after a pair of Matthews free throws, that deficit was down to four. For a moment, it seemed that the Nittany Lions’ luck had run out, that Michigan’s superiority had finally taken over.
Then, the Wolverines returned to the poor shot selection, bad rebounding and spotty defense that had doomed it in the first 24 minutes. Just as soon as Michigan had cut the deficit to four, it was back to double digits, cementing its ugliest loss in over a year.
“We came back and fought, Saddi (Washington) did a hell of a job coaching,” Matthews said of the assistant coach who replaced Michigan coach John Beilein after his half-time ejection. “But the game was lost in the first half.”
Matthews’ assertion, though, is a simplification. As poorly as the Wolverines played in the first half, the game was not over. The game, it turned out, was only over when Michigan went back to the habits that put it down 16 in the first place. After a fleeting stretch of playing smart basketball — getting into the paint and to the free throw line — the Wolverines began forcing up contested threes and playing the style of isolation basketball that would have sent Beilein into a fury were he still on the sideline.
But as his team capitulated, Matthews remained Michigan’s one constant, nailing a jabstep three and a pair of free throws while his teammates went more than 11 minutes without scoring. For Matthews, it was a repeat of Saturday against Wisconsin, when he scored 14 of the Wolverines’ last 23 points en route to a 61-52 win.
“It was good. He wants to win,” Beilein said after Tuesday’s loss. “There’s a sense of urgency with Charles. He wants to have a great year this year, and he’s working like crazy. I love the way he’s trending right now.”
“We lost, it don’t matter.”
Because as well as he has played, his team has reached its collective worst in a season that has included far more highs than lows. And for Matthews — likely in his last season at Michigan — to reach the heights he imagined when he transferred here, his teammates need to rediscover those highs.
“Time is running short,” Matthews said. “It ain’t no more, ‘We’ll fix it later.’ Time is now.”