It took until the halftime buzzer for Michigan to take its first lead of the game.
After an opening 17 minutes that saw the Wolverines play their worst basketball of the season, falling to an eight-point deficit against Western Michigan, junior wing Charles Matthews threw down a putback dunk off a missed layup from junior point guard Zavier Simpson in transition. That started a 10-0 run heading into the half that proved decisive as No. 5 Michigan (11-0) beat the Broncos (5-5), 70-62.
All 10 of those points were scored in transition, with Matthews accounting for six of them and a steal. It seemed the Wolverines’ momentum was quelled after sophomore guard Jordan Poole went for an emphatic dunk off his own steal to take the lead and the ball clanged off the rim. Seconds later though, Matthews ran through the Broncos’ defense as time was winding down to hit a layup at the buzzer and give Michigan a 30-28 lead.
“All about our defense,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “There wasn’t an offensive thing happening there other than fast break. We needed that. … We go down eight at half, we’re sitting here probably having a very different conversation right now.”
For much of the first half, the Wolverines seemed hungover at best, unready at worst. With 7:26 to go, they pulled down three straight offensive boards, missing shot after shot, until finally, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis missed one under the basket and the Broncos came up with it. That was emblematic of the opening 20 minutes.
The Broncos managed held onto the lead throughout the half, buoyed by nine straight points from guard Michael Flowers, who finished the game with 31.
Matthews’ 13 first-half points on 4-of-8 shooting saved what was otherwise an abysmal offensive performance for the Wolverines over the first 20 minutes. Nobody else had more than five points and as a team, Michigan shot 1-of-8 from 3-point range and 5-of-13 from the free throw line.
“The first half, it’s one of those things, you just say, ‘There’s no sense in getting mad right now.’ I can’t control what’s happening out there. Our kids need composure,” Beilein said. “They have not been in this situation where this thing is, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to be good.’ And the other team, ‘You’re just gonna win easy.’ And then you get into these situations and I thought we needed to get through something like that to get a W.
“Not talking about winning at Northwestern where it’s another Big Ten game, I’m talking about when things aren’t going well and you’re about to get upset, you’ve got to have some resiliency and I love what we saw from our team today.”
By the end of the game though, much of those early struggles had been forgotten. Simpson, a 21.7 percent 3-point shooter coming into Saturday, scored 15 on 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Matthews finished with a double-double — 25 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting from the field and 11-of-16 from the free throw line.
“That’s Charles,” Poole said. “We obviously know how he is as a player, what he’s capable of, and he was able to step up today.”
The Wolverines extended their lead to five within the first two minutes after the half, forcing a timeout from Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins after a 3-pointer from Simpson. That did little to help.
On the other end of the break, Poole and Simpson both hit 3-pointers, to extend the lead. Less than four minutes after initially doing so, this time with the Wolverines up 44-32, Hawkins called timeout again.
Western Michigan hung around after that, keeping the margin within single digits and a miraculous upset within arm’s length for much of the remainder — even cutting the lead to five with under 90 seconds to go.
When Matthews nailed a 3-pointer from the corner off a Simpson drive with 1:13 to go, bringing the lead to eight, it put the result to bed, Michigan having avoided disaster.