STATE COLLEGE — The ball fell through the net and Luke Yaklich’s head slumped over his body, hands falling forward, then everything else moving with it, the assistant coach’s posture shaping into an upside-down L.
It was just over three minutes into Tuesday night’s game and Jordan Poole had started to run back in transition. Zavier Simpson instead turned it over, leaving Myles Dread uncovered. He proceeded to hit a 3-pointer, and for Michigan, things went downhill from there.
The Wolverines’ defense — one Yaklich has helped build to the heights of a national title contender — came into State College ranked second in the country in adjusted efficiency. In the first half, it got rocked to the tune of 1.29 points per possession, and that wasn’t the biggest thing that went wrong in Michigan’s 75-69 loss to Penn State.
John Beilein got ejected for the first time in roughly 40 years. A second-half comeback fell short as the Wolverines couldn’t find a good shot after gaining control of the game. Poole’s shooting slump continued with a 1-of-8 performance from beyond the arc. The Nittany Lions took it to Michigan on the offensive boards. This against a team that earned its second Big Ten win on Tuesday, whose student section wasn’t big enough to cover the court when they stormed it.
It was, you might say, a wake-up call.
The Wolverines haven’t played with a deficit like the 16 points they were down after Rasir Bolton hit three technical free throws to start the second half. They haven’t faced adversity like Beilein watching the second half on TV from a room inside the bowels of Bryce Jordan Center. It showed.
“We have to have more discipline,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington, who replaced Beilein in the second half. “Defensive end, I think we gave up two — at least three, maybe even four fouls on 3-point shots. Which were big. I don’t know how many of them they converted from the free throw line, but just little things like that.”
This loss was about more than John Beilein getting ejected, and it was about more than a few calls going against the Wolverines. Michigan is at a crossroads in its season. No longer is it invincible — three court-stormings, one at the building of the league’s bottom-feeder, saw to that. Instead, it has lost two of four.
Its offense seems to have leveled out, and defense can’t win every game. Thus, days like Tuesday, where someone other than Charles Matthews needs to score in crunch-time and nobody can until it’s too late.
Some of that will get solved inherently — Jordan Poole won’t stay in a shooting slump forever. At times on Tuesday though, he tried to shoot himself out of it, jacking a pull-up two late in the first half. In his seat on the bench, Beilein leaned all the way back, arms crossed. The shot fell out. That, too, won’t work.
“He’s really a good 3-point shooter,” Beilein said. “He has gotta keep working on maybe taking the right shots. But I think there’s something that, right on, every slump — every guy’s gonna go through these times, where you have none of those 1-for-something games.”
After Tuesday, the Wolverines sit tied with Michigan State in the Big Ten standings, on the back of December and January wins. Their goals are bigger than the Big Ten though. Right now, meeting them requires something more — far more — than whatever Tuesday was.
The job of explaining that fell to redshirt junior Charles Matthews, who stood in a back hallway postgame donning a gray sweatshirt, stat-sheet in hand, voice low.
“We gotta be better than that as a collective group,” Matthews said. “People talk about coach B getting ejected, that had nothing to do with it. We gave up 34 free throw attempts. You’re not winning a game, you can’t guard that. That’s 23 free points right there.”
Matthews has a year of eligibility left, but at this point, seems unlikely to exercise it. It went unspoken after the loss, but everyone understood — this is probably his last, best chance to win a national title.
To do so, Michigan needs to get over the hump it found itself struggling with in State College. Fast.
“Time is running short,” Matthews said. “It ain’t no more, ‘We’ll fix it later.’ Time is now.”