Blink, and you might have missed the Michigan men’s basketball team’s comeback.
Blink again, and you wouldn’t have seen UCLA take back control of the game.
If you blinked a third time, an apology is due.
Despite lackadaisical frontcourt defense and inconsistent shooting that resulted in a 15-point deficit, Michigan used a late run led by junior forward Moritz Wagner and sophomore guard Zavier Simpson to push the game into overtime, where the Wolverines flew past the Bruins to win, 78-69.
“These last stretches we just all looked each other in the eye and we said we’re gonna ride or die regardless of the results,” said redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews. “So when we came out there we said, ‘Look, if we lose we lose, but let’s go out there like some dogs, like some soldiers. Lay it out on the line.’ ”
Trailing by six points late in the second half, Wagner hit two 3-pointers and added a fast-break dunk to trim the deficit to two — UCLA’s smallest lead since 4:15 in the first half. Wagner also brought a defensive intensity previously unseen in the contest to stymie the Bruins’ low-post offense.
From there, the undoing of UCLA’s lead came at the hands of Simpson. First came an improbable scoop off the glass as the shot clock expired at the 2:35 mark. Then came a steal and fast-break layup with 18 seconds left to reduce the deficit to one.
“(Simpson) gave us a spark halfway through the second half,” Wagner said. “Just contesting everything, stealing a lot, deflecting a lot of the balls. We were running the heck out of the ball, too.”
Simpson’s starting counterpart, Eli Brooks, had his own career-defining moment. The freshman hit two game-tying free throws with 10 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.
“How about that?” John Beilein asked. “I don’t think, if you guys checked, that he’d made two in a row all year long. He always missed one of them. … For the freshman to be in that stage late in the game. That was huge for him to go in and knock them down. It shows a lot about Eli.”
In the extra period, it was all Michigan. Simpson’s career day — he had a career-best 15 points — continued immediately with a three from the top of the key. Matthews followed suit, and UCLA could never make up for the offensive barrage.
The comeback was much-needed for the Wolverines, who surrendered a 20-point lead to Ohio State in their previous game. The fact that they were even competitive in the contest, evidenced by a poor shooting display from the free throw line, seemed improbable.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Beilein said. “When you go 8-for-22 from the foul line and you win a game, it’s really a great testimony to our kids that we did everything that we could to play inefficient basketball, but when we really needed to suck it up and get work done at the end, we got it done. I’m hoping it’s a huge benchmark for our team as we go forward.”
Michigan should consider itself lucky to have been down by just three points at halftime, given that the Wolverines were outrebounded by a lopsided 26-10 margin — 41-30 for the game — and fared marginally better with their frontcourt defense. The line between a narrow deficit and a blowout was perimeter defense — Michigan allowed only one trey and forced 12 UCLA turnovers in the half, an effort spearheaded by Simpson.
Meanwhile, Bruins center Thomas Welsh had his way with Wagner down low, going 5-for-6 with eight boards in the first 20 minutes. Wagner almost responded in kind, with an 11-point, three-rebound output of his own in the first half.
Like last year’s matchup between the two sides, the Wolverines took a nosedive to start the second half. They had as many turnovers in five minutes as they did in the first half, and they continued to have difficulty containing Welsh.
But in a two-minute stretch, Matthews had had enough. The redshirt sophomore went on a personal 8-0 run to cut into UCLA’s lead. Just as Michigan seemed to be turning a corner, an off-balance, shot clock-beating 3-pointer from Bruins guard Aaron Holiday halted its momentum.
“I felt like I lost these past two games for us because I wasn’t really bringing a lot of energy,” Matthews said. “I can’t let my teammates down again. This team looks at me a lot to step up when we’re down and I need to do what I need to do.”
The Wolverines, of course, didn’t take long to regain that momentum. Their electrifying late-game run catapulted them to a win they badly needed, and offered a glimpse of what this team could look like come March.
Two non-conference losses and a tough upcoming date at Texas is about what Michigan’s tournament résumé expected to look like at this point. But a 15-point comeback victory over UCLA surely sweetens the deal for a team battling inconsistency.
“The journey of this team,” Beilein said shaking his head, “and of you all that happen to be fans (who) are trying to figure out what Michigan is going to show up: get used to it. Our personality, our identity is not there yet.
“… Just hang on, I’m trying to hang on.”