DES MOINES, Iowa — Isaiah Livers didn’t know the ball went in until he saw walk-on guard Luke Wilson gesturing excitedly on the sidelines, until he saw his brother and his brother’s girlfriend standing up to applaud in the audience.
The sophomore forward had just received an outlet pass from junior guard Zavier Simpson, driven to the basket, elevated a few feet from the basket and thrown down a two-handed slam that put Florida guard Andrew Nembhard on a poster.
“Oof,” Wilson said later. “Oof. I mean, oof.”
Two possessions later, Livers did it again, driving into the paint and dunking, as if there were nothing to it.
But there wasn’t always nothing to it. Livers has struggled with aggression and on-court selflessness since his days as a high school point guard, where he distributed but didn’t always shoot. Coming into college, he was stunned at his coaches’ advice to be more aggressive and in his sophomore year, it’s still a process.
Earlier in the game, Livers had come out, frustrated that his shots weren’t going in. But he had been settling for low probability mid-range jumpers instead of taking his opportunities to turn the corner, go downhill and drive.
“Stay aggressive,” assistant coaches DeAndre Haynes and Saddi Washington told him, according to Haynes. “Keep your head up, don’t carry suitcases right now, you’re gonna get in and have a really big game.”
Livers saw the advice as them ripping on him. It only made him angrier.
“OK,” he said. “Imma show you aggressive.”
Now, the only suitcases he’ll be carrying are those he packed for Anaheim, Calif. on the way to the Sweet Sixteen after the Wolverines’ 64-49 win over Florida.
But Nembhard wasn’t the only one posterized on Saturday. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis set the tone on Michigan’s very first possession of the game. He drove baseline, leaving the Gators befuddled, and slammed. Junior center Jon Teske got the ball from Simpson on the next possession and he, too, drove into the paint and found nothing but rim. And that was only his first dunk of the night — a minute later, he did it again.
“You forget all about those,” Livers said. “It was just aggressiveness. Iggy ripped baseline. I think the guy overplayed him because Iggy, lefty, baseline with his right, one up and two, and that’s how you start a game off right. And Jon? Jon’s seven foot, he doesn’t count. He’s gonna go up there and just dunk it easy.”
Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, meanwhile, dunked with three minutes left in the first half, back when the score was still close, giving Michigan a three-point cushion. And with 49 seconds left in the game, Matthews threw down another dunk, complete with a death stare, to put the finishing touches on the win.
Fresh off the rush of jumping off the bench, again, to celebrate, the bench players came in to ice the game.
“It gets contagious after a while,” Washington said.
The dunks — particularly Livers’ — got the whole team rolling with a ferocity it hadn’t had before, when the Wolverines went seven minutes without a field goal and let the Gators back in the game partway through the second half. Afterward, they played like the game, and the Sweet Sixteen trip, was theirs for the taking.
A good 30 minutes after the last dunks had landed, the players still remembered them in the locker room, responding with a chorus of “ooohs” and “oofs” and speechless head-shakes.
The only person who was nonchalant was Michigan coach John Beilein, who saw the dunks not as a show, but as just another piece of a win.
“Two points,” he said when asked his reaction. “Way to go, man. Get back on defense.”