It was ugly as ugly gets, and Michigan will take it just fine.
When Wisconsin comes to town, there isn’t any other option.
And, as the ball found Zavier Simpson at the top of the arc with just over three minutes to go, the Wolverines up by three and a chance to put the Badgers away materializing, it seemed they had managed to beat Wisconsin at its own game. Then, the shot clanked off the rim.
That scene replayed throughout the second half of Saturday’s game — Michigan finding an open three and being unable to convert, the Badgers hanging on as a result. Finally though, with 1:28 to go, it was Charles Matthews finding nylon, not from 3-point range, but his usual spot on the right block, giving the Wolverines a five-point lead.
A minute later, time winding and the crowd at its crescendo, it was Matthews again, bouncing a few feet in front of the free throw line and nailing another jumper, extending the lead to seven. It would prove decisive as No. 7 Michigan (22-2 overall, 11-2 Big Ten) found its way to a 61-52 win over No. 19 Wisconsin (17-7, 9-4).
“This is who I believe — what I envisioned for (Matthews) when he came here,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And there’s been times in the games that he’s not sure what he should do. Should he shoot it? Should he take it to the basket? Should he pass it? … In this second half, he had a great mix of making those decisions.”
Three weeks ago in Madison, the Badgers handed the Wolverines their first loss of the year, fans storming the court as players filed out, backs turned.
Michigan didn’t forget.
“People storming the court, we don’t like that,” Beilein said. “… It’s not like, ‘Wow, they’re storming the court on us?’ No, it’s like, ‘No, we don’t like that situation.’ Our kids were pretty fired up about playing, because they haven’t lost much.”
For much of Saturday’s rematch, the first game seemed to be on repeat. Only, the Wolverines were in front.
The score was deadlocked at 27 going into halftime and stayed that way for nearly three minutes, the second half’s first review happening before its first bucket. It was emblematic of the game — a slow, unyielding stretch in which neither team played well and yet you couldn’t look away.
Without a single 3-pointer falling for Michigan in the second half, Matthews held the key to Michigan’s offense. The redshirt junior hit midrange shots, got to the rim and even found junior center Jon Teske for an and-one layup by spinning a pass around Nate Reuvers’ back. He finished with 18 points, 16 in the second half, on 9-of-15 shooting.
“He was able to get his shots,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “Just being aggressive. Picking his spots and (taking) the shots you know he’s confident in making and being able to knock them down down the stretch was huge for us today.”
Michigan had three weeks to find an answer for Ethan Happ, who dominated with 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists when the Badgers toppled the Wolverines in Madison. Early on, it seemed nothing had changed. The fifth-year senior scored eight of Wisconsin’s first 10 points, going at, under and around Teske down low, finding repeated success.
After Happ picked up his third foul to start the second half, leading to a stretch on the bench, things shifted. Happ shot just 2-of-9 from the field over the final 20 minutes as Teske took the upper hand in the matchup on both ends, finishing with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
“The whole idea was, guard him without bad fouls,” Beilein said. “Well I think he guarded him about as physical as he could guard him in the second half.”
When the game ended, Happ found Beilein on the court, telling the coach he hopes to see him again this season. “No Ethan,” Beilein said, recounting the story, “I don’t want to see you again the rest of my life.”
In 12 seasons at Michigan, Beilein had beaten Wisconsin all of five times before Saturday. He’ll happily take the sixth.