CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It was a play that the Michigan basketball team has practiced defending hundreds of times.
Early in the second half of the Wolverines’ 86-71 loss Wednesday, North Carolina’s Joel Berry II called for a screen at the top of the key. Forward Luke Maye obliged, setting the screen and rolling to the basket.
The two Michigan defenders involved — freshman point guard Eli Brooks and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson — both switched to the ball handler.
Berry then dribbled his way into space and found Maye for an open dunk, inciting roars in the Dean Dome.
On a night when the Tar Heels shot 55 percent from the floor, those types of mistakes were common in what amounted to the Wolverines’ worst defensive performance of the year.
“Just (not enough) grit,” Brooks said. “(We weren’t) able to get down and dirty.”
After scoring just 45 points against then-No. 4 Michigan State on Sunday, the Tar Heels connected for 51 points on 65-percent shooting in the first half — a disastrous frame for Michigan defensively.
“I don’t think we were ready for the quickness with the speed and precision that they run with,” Beilein said. “We just weren’t locked in. … We laid an egg for most of the first half defensively.”
Part of the issue was the Wolverines’ inability to match up with the physicality of Maye, who led all scorers with 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting.
And when that mismatch was combined with ball movement and the sharp-shooting of guard Kenny Williams, North Carolina had a formula too potent for the Wolverines.
“Yeah, they were really moving the ball well,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Luke Maye is a really tough matchup for us. We’re playing really small with Duncan Robinson as a skinny-four man. This was really a bad matchup, and it really hurt us.”
But even when Michigan executed defensively, the Tar Heels’ skill persisted.
Midway through the first half, Berry drove from the key and got a step on sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson, in an impressive showing of quick feet, caught up to cut off Berry — only for the former Final Four MVP to jump, lean back and kiss an eight-footer off the glass.
“They didn’t miss shots,” Beilein said. “They’re not as well-oiled as they were last year yet, but they’ve got really good talent.”
That talent was further magnified on North Carolina’s second-chance opportunities.
Michigan allowed 20 points off 10 offensive boards and lost the overall rebounding margin, 37-31.
“They just did a great job of getting second shots off offensive boards,” Beilein said. “We just weren’t good.”
Added Brooks: “I think just the physicality (was most disappointing). Being able to command the glass, and just not playing physical inside. It comes with the guards, even those inside. We’ve got to get a rebound, we didn’t do a good job of rebounding, and that hurt us. We just didn’t have enough dogs out there to fight and compete on the glass.”
Despite Michigan’s offensive struggles Wednesday, it still could have competed with the Tar Heels. Poor defense and rebounding lapses simply delivered the punches that left the Wolverines bruised by the game’s end.
“It’s one that we’ve got to grow from,” Beilein said. “But I’m disappointed that some of the veterans right now weren’t as gritty as they’ve been in the past.”