It was somewhat of a frustrating game for Michigan. Despite looking like the better team for the majority of the game, the Wolverines couldn’t quite put away the Gators. Every time Michigan seemed to be on the brink of breaking the game open, Florida would respond with a basket or a run, keeping it close.
It wasn’t until just under the five-minute mark of the second half that the Wolverines and their fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief. That’s when Isaiah Livers converted a half-court bounce pass from Zavier Simpson into a rim-rattling, game-sealing dunk. The basket gave Michigan a 57-44 lead, and when Livers struck again, with another dunk in traffic three minutes later, it was time to empty the bench.
Jordan Poole led the Wolverines in scoring with 19 points, shooting four of nine from beyond the arc, and Simpson messed around and nearly got a triple-double, finishing with nine points, nine assists and nine rebounds. But it was Michigan’s defense that carried the day, as the Wolverines held Florida to just 49 points, 19 below the Gators’ season average.
Florida stayed in the game in the first half largely due to strong three-point shooting, but the Wolverines adjusted, and effectively “shut the water off” in the second half, as the players put it. Simpson and Charles Matthews led the defensive effort, but they had help, primarily in the form of center Jon Teske, who controlled the back end of Michigan’s defense. Numerous time throughout the game, Florida would find its way into the paint and appear to have a good look at the basket, only to be confronted by Teske. Invariably, the Gators would either kick the ball back outside or adjust their shot so significantly that it rarely found the bottom of the net.
“Sleep,” as he’s called by is teammates (short for “Big Sleep”), provides a security blanket that may not show up in the box score, but is noticed - and appreciated - by his coaches and teammates. After the game, Matthews and Poole both talked about the reassurance Teske gives the team, with his ability to erase mistakes. Matthews even took the opportunity to playfully rib former teammate and current Los Angeles Laker Mo Wagner, when he described one of the differences between this team and last year’s team. “Last year we had Mo, and Mo wasn’t blocking those shots,” Matthews said, unable to contain his smile.
Led by Teske, Michigan enjoyed a significant size advantage, and the Wolverines took advantage, outrebounding the Gators 42-29 and outscoring them in the paint 34-16. Michigan’s 34 points in the paint were less the result of traditional post-up play and more the result of drives and pick-and-roll finishes, but Florida’s paltry 16 points in the paint was a testament to Michigan’s defense - and Teske’s impact.
With the victory Michigan advances to the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive season and the fifth time under Beilein. To think, it wasn’t that long ago that Michigan seemed to be a perennial NCAA bubble team, and one that finished on the wrong side of the bubble at that. But after four Sweet Sixteen appearances and two Final Fours in six years, tournament success is no longer the exception, but the expectation in Ann Arbor.
After the game, Beilein talked about the raised expectations that come with success, joking that, “If we don’t win a national championship soon, I’ll probably be fired.”
Little chance of that.