DES MOINES, Iowa — Last year, when Michigan played Montana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Grizzlies got out to a quick 10-0 lead before the Wolverines found a groove and won.
Watching film of that game ahead of the rematch, Michigan players cringed and even laughed at their mistakes. This time, they knew they would allow no such thing. Sure enough, this time it was the Wolverines (29-6) who started the game off on a 10-2 run.
It seemed that every shot Montana took — threes, layups, even a fast-break dunk attempt — missed. The Wolverines’ shooting wasn’t particularly potent, either, but their defense clamped down, holding the Grizzlies to 33 percent from the field.
“We were really ready for them,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “And our intensity — I felt like we were really connected.”
Montana (26-9), a No. 15 seed out of the Big Sky Conference that doesn’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-7, had no answer for Michigan’s relentlessness.
It was a microcosm of everything Michigan has been all season. Lots of defense, just enough offense, loads of personality and — when all was said and done — a 74-55 win.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “When we play good defense it turns into offense for us I feel like. When we’re playing on defense then offensively we play good and we made stops, we got rebounds, we went out and run, we just had a lot of fun out there and I think it showed.”
Montana, which won the Big Sky thanks in large part to its 3-point shooting, missed its first nine attempts from deep, clanking shot after shot. The Wolverines struggled from three, too, hitting just 5-for-17. But the difference was that they found passing lanes and got to the basket. Michigan had four dunks in the first half alone — including one where Brazdeikis knocked the ball away from Montana guard Donaven Dorsey and took it down the court for the slam, drawing a foul in the process. Junior guard Zavier Simpson finished with 10 assists, creating looks for the offense all night. He frequently found Brazdeikis and junior center Jon Teske for open alley-oop layups and dunks, introducing a new hook shot-style pass in the process.
And in a size mismatch, the Wolverines’ forwards shined. Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews got a double-double — scoring 22 points with 10 rebounds. Teske finished with double digits with 11 points and nine rebounds. Brazdeikis and sophomore guard Jordan Poole were also in double digits, with 14 and 10 points, respectively.
At the beginning of the second half, Montana briefly cut its deficit to eight with buckets on two consecutive possessions — including just its second three of the game — but Michigan responded with a 10-0 run spurred by two consecutive Matthews triples and an alley-oop dunk by Teske.
“Right away, we responded,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “So it was huge. Some of those points, if I recall, were not pretty points. We just got points.”
From there, the Wolverines kept rolling. They took a 20-point lead with 8:29 remaining and led by at least that much until the final seconds, when the freshmen and walk-ons got their time on the court.
As with many of their previous games against inferior opponents, the Wolverines didn’t always look their best, shooting 49 percent from the field and committing 10 turnovers. But every time one of the Grizzlies tried to wiggle his way around a much bigger and more physical Michigan player, it was clear that Montana was overmatched.