With 4:23 left in the game, Zavier Simpson checked into a three-point game.
At that point, he had five points, three steals and a rebound to his credit. Bruins guard Aaron Holiday, meanwhile, had 23 points and had scored the last six to maintain his team’s lead.
So Michigan coach John Beilein turned to the sophomore guard. Simpson recalled his coach’s instructions.
“Play defense. Keep playing defense.”
He did that and more.
With just over 2:30 remaining, Michigan still trailed by four. The shot clock was running down on the Wolverines’ possession, and Simpson had the ball on the left wing. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was running off a double screen, but he was covered tightly.
Simpson faked a pass, euro-stepped into the lane and threw up a near-hook shot with his right hand. It bounced off the glass and in.
“I didn’t think it was going to be glass, but I knew it was going in once I released; it felt good,” Simpson said.
Michigan’s work was far from over, though. With 43 seconds left, UCLA had the ball with a three-point lead. The Wolverines needed a stop. Simpson provided. He stole the ball from Holiday and took it coast-to-coast for the layup.
“It’s just unbelievable the way he impacts the game with his hands, how solid he was on Aaron Holiday,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner. “Aaron Holiday is a heck of a player, by the way. (Zavier) didn’t make dumb fouls like Muhammad and I did, so he stayed with it and led us.”
But then Beilein pulled Simpson out of the game. He replaced him with freshman Eli Brooks, who’s more of an offensive-minded guard.
Brooks didn’t disappoint either. After Bruins forward Gyorgy Goloman hit one of two free throws, Brooks ended up with the ball on the right wing. He drove to the basket and drew a foul. However, that wasn’t exactly a comforting occurrence for the Wolverines.
Michigan had been abysmal from the charity stripe up to that point in the game, shooting just over 31 percent. Add to that Brooks’ inexperience – he’d only attempted 10 free throws in his career – and the uneasiness grew.
But Brooks calmly stepped to the line, hit both free throws and sent the game to overtime.
“How about that?” Beilein said. “… For a freshman to be in that stage late in the game, that was huge for him to just go in and knock them down.”
Simpson came back in to start the overtime period, and on the first possession, he drilled an open three from the top of the key. He added a layup and a free throw to finish the day with 15 points and four steals, and the Wolverines polished off a 78-69 victory.
“The point guard sets the tone on the offensive and defensive end,” Simpson said. “So I just wanted to come in and set the tone. I knew it would be contagious, and I knew it would rub off on my teammates.”
After the game, Brooks and Simpson led the Wolverines in singing “The Victors.” It’s a far cry from where they’ve been in the past few games.
Simpson entered the game averaging 3.4 points per game. Brooks was averaging 4.1. Though both had shown flashes, neither had established themselves as a consistent contributor. And on a team that didn’t seem to have an answer for when good opponents went on runs, Brooks’ and Simpson’s shortcomings were easier to see.
In that sense, Saturday felt familiar. UCLA went out to a 15-point lead, and Michigan needed somebody to step up. Thanks to Simpson’s defense and timely shooting and Brooks’ free throws, though, the Wolverines’ response was rather unfamiliar.