Zavier Simpson drove towards the basket. With two Oregon players draped all over him, the senior point guard went to his calling card — a running hookshot high off the backboard.
With the closing seconds of overtime ticking away and the Wolverines down by one, the once-festive crowd inside Crisler Center hung eagerly on the outcome of Simpson’s shot.
When it bounced off the front of the rim, there was an audible gasp. Then, when both Brandon Johns Jr. and Isaiah Livers leapt up to tip the rebound in, there was another one. Finally, when their attempts didn’t fall, the gasps turned to palpable dejection.
The buzzer sounded and No. 10 Oregon (8-2) escaped with a thrilling, 71-70, overtime win over No. 5 Michigan (8-3).
“It stings a lot,” Johns said. “I thought we had it. We all thought we had it. That tip-in was so close.”
Added Michigan coach Juwan Howard: “We got the ball in the hands of the right person. I love the look that we had. (Simpson) had the opportunity to either drive it for a basket, throw it back to (junior forward Isaiah Livers) — they brought everybody to the paint for the spray, so great decision on his part and we live with the results. We had a chance to tip it in and it just didn’t fall for us.”
Early on, an overtime nailbiter didn’t look like it was in the cards. The Ducks were soaring and the Wolverines were barely fluttering.
Within the first five minutes, Oregon had knocked down a trio of 3-pointers and accumulated 13 points. As for Michigan, its offense sputtered. After freshman Franz Wagner hit a three from the top of the key, the Wolverines went cold, shooting 1-12 over the next ten minutes. Sophomore guard David DeJulius finished off a contested layup to finally stop the bleeding but the Ducks had surged to a 22-9 lead.
“We missed some shots that we usually make,” Howard said. “We got some open looks but their defensive coverage bothered us. They have a lot of different defensive schemes that they throw at you so there were some shots that we may have rushed.”
When Oregon’s Anthony Mathis hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half, it looked as if Michigan was on the verge of capitulation.
As the half wore on though, the Wolverines showed life. DeJulius and sophomore forward Brandon Johns’ effort on the offensive glass sparked a much-needed comeback for Michigan.
DeJulius racked up twelve points in quick succession — a second-chance three from the corner, a running floater in the lane, three free-throws and another triple lifted the Wolverines’ spirits.
The Ducks’ unquestioned leader, preseason All-American candidate, Payton Pritchard ended his team’s offensive rut with a shake-and-bake 3-pointer from the wing.
“Pritchard is a gamer,” Howard said. “It’s not his first rodeo. I’ve always been a fan of his game because he’s a gritty guy, smart player, has a high-IQ and also he can make tough shots both from the outside and on the inside.”
At the end of twenty, Oregon held an eight-point advantage, which felt like a fortuitous margin for both sides. Michigan was still in the game and the Ducks were up despite ceding a late run.
To start the second half, Isaiah Livers, who shot 0-for-6 in the first half, exploded for eleven points in the blink of an eye. Off bulleted feeds from senior point guard Zavier Simpson, Livers couldn’t miss from deep.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Livers’ effort did little to cut into their eight-point deficit at first. The Ducks matched Michigan’s offensive outburst with one of their own. Per usual, Pritchard and Mathis led the way.
With both teams exchanging baskets, the margin hovered around five points through the first ten minutes of the half.
The Wolverines then took it to another gear. Following a momentous rejection from Johns on one end, Wagner — who finished with a career-high 21 points — knocked down a corner triple to give Michigan its first lead since the game’s opening minute. The crowd inside Crisler reached fever pitch.
“My teammates picked me up at halftime and told me to stay confident,” Wagner said. “That really helped me be more aggressive and more confident taking shots that I can make.”
It would be short-lived however, as the Wolverines surrendered the lead moments later. Off a turnover caused by Oregon’s full-court press, Pritchard found Mathis on the wing for his sixth three of the afternoon.
For the game, the Ducks shot 50 percent from deep — only the second time an opponent has reached that mark against Michigan.
“(Mathis) made some tough shots that were deep from the floor,” Howard said. “We’ve done a pretty good job in the past of guarding the three-point line. Unfortunately, today, they made some bombs.”
Over the next five minutes, Pritchard showed his quality, penetrating the lane whenever he wished. Since Michigan couldn’t stop Pritchard defensively, it did its best to counteract him on the other end. Wagner hit a long two and with 25 seconds remaining in regulation, Johns tied the game at 63.
On the ensuing possession, Mathis sunk a desperation 35-footer but time had already expired.
Overtime was basically a continuation of the end of regulation. For the Ducks, Pritchard was aggressively attacking the rim and for the Wolverines, Wagner was knocking down jumpers.
Then, with under a minute remaining, DeJulius converted a baseline floater to cut Oregon’s advantage to just one. Michigan immediately entered its press and caused Pritchard to dribble the ball off his leg.
But even with the additional opportunity, the Wolverines’ late-game offense looked lost. Simpson almost bailed them out, but the ball just didn’t fall Michigan’s way, culminating in its second straight loss.