After his first shot in warm-ups, Nik Stauskas knew it was going to be a good shooting day.
Maybe the rest of the arena, and the rest of the Michigan men’s basketball team didn’t know it, but the freshman guard did. By his standards, Stauskas — the Wolverines’ sharpshooter — had been in a funk from beyond the 3-point line, struggling to find the form that had him ascend from sixth man off the bench to one of the best pure shooters in the country.
In the earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Stauskas’s shots from deep looked flat. They took hard bounces off the rim — the soft, floating touch wasn’t there.
So on Sunday, Stauskas felt what nobody else could’ve predicted because his shots in warm-ups felt like his shots from the beginning of the season. The freshman knew he was in for a big game, and it showed. He scored a game-high 22 points and didn’t miss a shot on six attempts from downtown, carrying Michigan to a 79-59 win over Florida to advance to the Final Four.
“I was calling it for the last week — I was due for one of these games,” Stauskas said. “It’s been a while. … My jumper felt real good so I just let it fly.”
For the majority of the first half, it looked like Florida had forgotten to scout the sharpshooting Stauskas. While Michigan (12-6 Big Ten, 30-7 overall) moved the ball around on offense and in transition, Stauskas was left open in the corner. Last week, there was a good chance he didn’t connect on the open attempts.
But on Sunday, he made the Gators pay. Time after time, Stauskas calmly sunk the open looks from the corner, as he finished the first half with 19 points, including five 3-pointers.
As has been the case for most of the season, making the first shot was key for Stauskas. Known for his antics after making big shots but also for struggling late in games if his first few attempts don’t go in, a clean swoosh on his first made 3-point attempt proved crucial.
“Every time Nik makes that first three, we call it popping off,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “Nik gets excited and puts on the goggles and everything. Once he gets like that, you can call it quits.”
After his third made 3-point attempt — again, from the corner — Stauskas went crazy, running down the court, smiling and wagging his tongue. The last time he had shot more than 50 percent from deep was in the beginning of February against Ohio State, which would be acceptable for any Wolverine except for Stauskas.
On Saturday, he became the first player in an NCAA Regional final to finish 6-for-6 on 3-pointers. For the first time since the tournament started, shooting looked fun for him again.
“Nik was incredible,” Hardaway said. “They just left him wide open, and it’s tough for them when there are three or four shooters on the court at the same time. They had to pick their poison on who to defend and who to leave open. Nik had the hot hand for the whole team today.”
On his last made 3-pointer of the day, Stauskas received a pass in the corner after a kickout from the post. He had an open look but put the ball on the court and dribbled once to his left. With a defender close on his right and the baseline close on his left, Stauskas hoisted up another dagger from deep. His 20th, 21st and 22nd points barely nicked the rim and put Michigan up by 14.
The Gator, Florida’s mascot, looked up at the scoreboard momentarily before darting his head back down quickly. It didn’t need the giant Jumbotron to tell it something that was already very clear — it was just a Nik Stauskas type of afternoon, full of 3-pointers, goggles and lots and lots of smiles.