LAHAINA, Hawaii — Evan Smotrycz had reason to celebrate — he’d just put a dagger in the heart of No. 8 Memphis.
Michigan’s sophomore forward screamed in celebration at halfcourt after his 3-pointer with 3:27 left in the game gave the No. 15 Michigan basketball team a 14-point lead, clinching a 73-61 win in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational. The victory set up an NCAA Tournament rematch with No. 6 Duke in Tuesday’s quarterfinals — the Blue Devils dispatched Tennessee, 77-67, in the second game on Monday.
The final score belies just how hard the Wolverines (4-0) had to fight against the Tigers to emerge with the win. The game was intense from the opening tip, and the intensity turned up a notch after the first half ended.
After freshman point guard Trey Burke blocked Joe Jackson’s layup as time expired in the half to enter the break with a 37-31 lead, the Tigers appeared to take exception to Michigan’s celebration. A shouting match turned into a bout of pushing and shoving at halfcourt, with both senior guard Zack Novak and Memphis guard Will Barton receiving technical fouls.
And that emotion carried over to the second half. Right out of the break, the game erupted in physicality, with players constantly falling on the floor and crashing into each other underneath the basket. Michigan was called for six fouls in the first eight minutes of the half.
But with Memphis (1-1) failing to make any headway by chipping away from the free-throw line, the Wolverines took over. Junior guard Eso Akunne’s 3-pointer punctuated a 7-0 run and gave the hot-shooting Wolverines a 12-point lead with 12:28 remaining in the game.
“I know we had mismatches out there, and they were really overplaying us,” said sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who finished with 21 points to lead all scorers. “We were just trying to stay smart and play hard at the same time.
“They were playing really up on us, so we just used that to our advantage for backdoor cuts.”
From there, Michigan relied on its defense. The team struggled at times to run offensive sets in the face of increased Tiger pressure, but it stymied Memphis on the other end, refusing to allow the Tigers to overcome the deficit.
Sophomore forward Jon Horford had his best game yet defensively, with redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan sitting early due to foul trouble. Horford established himself in the paint and prevented the many takes to the basket that Memphis relied on.
The Tigers were forced to start shooting more from the outside in the second half, taking them out of their comfort zone. And Michigan constantly attacked the boards, cleaning up Memphis misses and preventing second-chance opportunities.
The Wolverines won the rebounding battle, 38-29, and held the Tigers to just 33.3 percent shooting from the field for the game.
“I think we just made hits,” Novak said. “We really knew that they were going to fly at the glass. That’s how they scored a lot of points in the tapes that we saw. So we figured if we could keep them off the glass and not give them second chances, our chances to win will go way up.”
The Tigers tried to come back by turning the game into more of an up-and-down affair, but couldn’t capitalize on its athleticism advantage with Burke able to keep up in the backcourt.
“They like to run in transition, so we made sure we had guys back there just communicating,” Hardaway Jr. said. “That was one of the key things we did (was) communicate really well to stop the ball coming down the fast break. Just pointing out to your man who you got.”
The beginning of the game was also fast-paced. Surprisingly, Michigan ran step-for-step with Memphis, taking the early 10-4 lead after Hardaway Jr.’ s layup three minutes in. The Wolverines kept it up, putting together their best offensive half of the season. Led by Hardaway Jr.’s 11 points and a 10-0 run to close the period, Michigan shot 15-for-25 from the field to take a 37-31 lead going into the break.
“When they went on that run, the game definitely changed,” Barton said. “Like (Memphis coach Josh Pastner) said, we stopped attacking the basket. We started settling for jump shots. We didn’t do a good job in transition defense. … that’s when they hurt us the most.”