Survive and advance, isn’t that what they say? Well, Michigan survived. Barely. And by doing so, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in as many years. But it wasn’t easy. Or pretty.
N.C. State guard Allerik Freeman talked about the “beauty and the ugly” of the NCAA tournament, and both were on display in Michigan’s second round match-up against Houston. In a game in which each team’s defense outshone its offense, Michigan had trouble putting the ball in the basket the entire night. The Wolverines shot an ugly 36% from the field and an even uglier 27% from beyond the arc. Michigan wasn’t just missing its shots, it was looking bad doing so. With airballs from deep and miss after miss from inside the paint, you began to wonder if there really was a lid on the basket.
Not that it was all on Michigan. Houston played inspired defense all night and guarded the three-point line aggressively throughout the first half, not allowing Michigan many clean looks. Other than a quick, three-for-three burst from Duncan Robinson, Michigan shot a woeful one of 14 from beyond the arc in the first half. Michigan adjusted during the break and found its way to the hole more often in the second half. Not that it helped much. Even normally strong finishers Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews had trouble converting, and the misses continued to pile up for the Wolverines. Yet despite the poor shooting, Michigan stayed in the game.
It’s also said that defense travels, and while that’s usually said in autumn about football, it’s appropriate in spring about basketball, too. Particularly for this Michigan squad, which seemingly overnight has become known more for its defense than its offense. That was certainly the case this weekend, as Michigan put together strong defensive performances against both Montana and Houston, holding each team well below its season averages in scoring and shooting percentage.
But defense can only carry a team so far, and when Abdur-Rahkman couldn’t convert a potential game-tying lay-up with six seconds remaining, it looked like it would be an early exit for the Wolverines. It just wasn’t Michigan’s night. At least it didn’t appear to be with 3.6 seconds left to play and Houston heading to the free throw line to salt the game away.
But then the beauty.
We all know what happened next, in a play will be replayed for years to come, freshman Jordan Poole sank a 30-footer as time expired, salvaging victory for the Wolverines and sending them to round three of the NCAA tournament. It was a play the Wolverines practice often, and one with many options. Abdur-Rahkman received the in-bounds pass, and after quickly finding himself double-teamed, found Poole, who was closer to the out-of-bounds line than he was the three-point line, when he launched his fateful shot. The Michigan celebration was immediate.
But there are two sides to every coin, and for Houston, Poole’s heroics cruelly snatched away what seemed like a hard-fought, well-earned victory. As the Wolverines celebrated on one end of the floor, Houston players were in tears on the other end.
After the game, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said the outcome was especially hard to take because he believed his Cougars were the better team for “the first 39 minutes and 57 seconds of the game.” At the very least, the teams were evenly matched. Rob Gray was outstanding again for the Cougars. Led by Zavier Simpson, Michigan defended Gray well, repeatedly cutting off his path to the basket and not giving him many open looks. But when Gray got an open look, he made good on it, with clutch threes and incredulous drives. Gray led all scorers with 23 points, and for good measure added a game-high ten rebounds. Houston also got a solid contribution from Devin Davis, but it was the Cougar defense that was the story. Constantly keeping the Wolverines off balance with different looks and different personnel. Constantly keeping the Wolverines from getting comfortable offensively.
Beilein praised his team’s composure after Michigan’s opening round victory over Montana, when the Wolverines weren’t fazed by an early 10-0 deficit and calmly and methodically fought back to take a three-point lead into the locker room. He could have said the same thing about his team this game. Nothing seemed to click offensively, but Michigan kept at it, seemingly unphased, never panicking.
Because of that composure and because of Poole’s heroics, Michigan survived the opening weekend in Wichita and advances to play in Los Angeles, where the Wolverines will face a high-flying Texas A&M team that just ran North Carolina out of the gym. Michigan will need to play better, will need to shoot better, if it hopes to continue to advance, but those concerns are for another day. For now, Michigan celebrates. Celebrates the beauty of the NCAA tournament and a moment that will live in Michigan - and NCAA - lore forever.