ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The country’s top-scoring major conference team visited the country’s stingiest defense Wednesday night in the marquee matchup of this year’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge. It was your standard unstoppable force-immovable object conundrum. Except it turns out the immovable object can get out and run a bit too.
No. 7 Michigan matched its season high in points with a perception-shifting 84-67 victory over No. 11 North Carolina on Wednesday at the Crisler Center. Sophomore Jordan Poole knocked down a nearly 30-foot jump shot with a hand in his face as the shot clock expired on the Wolverines’ final possession to get them to 84.
“I guess that was kind of how the night was going,” Poole said.
Poole finished the game with 18 points. Senior Charles Matthews had 21, and freshman catalyst Ignas Brazdeikis added 24, marking his third consecutive game with at least 20 points. All three players shot better than 50 percent from the field, as good defense turned into frustrated Tar Heels and open looks.
Michigan’s turn toward defensive dominance is a relatively new look for head coach John Beilein. Spurred a year ago by assistant Luke Yaklich and a couple of “bulldog” leaders (Matthews and point guard Zavier Simpson), the coach known for his offensive genius developed a team with a defense-first mindset and rode that identity to a spot in the national championship game. With that attitude spilling smoothly over to transition offense on the other side of the court Wednesday night, the Wolverines (7-0) looked as dangerous and self-assured as any group Beilein has had during his impressive tenure in Ann Arbor.
“It’s like a flu in there, a good flu,” Beilein said of the confidence his team has after its second blowout win over a ranked opponent in November. “When you’re having some success and you realize playing really hard and together is fun, I think it’s so natural to believe in yourself.”
The defense is what turned Wednesday’s game into a lopsided affair. Yaklich likes to tell his players to contest shots “with every fiber of their being,” and against North Carolina they did. Michigan contested 21 of North Carolina’s 25 shots from the paint and managed to keep one of the best fast-break offenses in the nation bottled up almost the entire night.
The Tar Heels scored only one bucket during the first five minutes of the second half while Michigan opened up a 10-point lead. Three minutes and one Tar Heel score later, the gap swelled to 20 points, and the Wolverines toyed with a team that was as exasperated as it is talented.
Roy Williams said afterward that he was as frustrated as he has ever been in his 31 years as a head coach. Beilein considered that one of the best compliments he could get.
Before Michigan clamped itself around the North Carolina fast break and wrestled the Heels to the ground, though, the Wolverines proved they could also trade punches with a prolific scoring outfit.
Led by Brazdeikis, the Wolverines’ offense scored 17 points in a four-minute span of the first half that sucked the life out of North Carolina and erased an early Tar Heel lead. The freshman, who is fast becoming one of college basketball’s bright new stars, scored six points in two possessions to spark the run. The Lithuanian native seems to grow every time he plays and relishes the spotlight of a big game.
“This is absolutely no surprise to me,” he said when asked about the major splash he has provided in his first seven collegiate games. “I imagined this every single day. I’m always confident. This is what it’s supposed to be.”
Between the swagger of Brazdeikis and Poole on the offensive side and the relentless effort of Simpson, Matthews and others on defense, it’s no wonder that the North Carolina players left the court Wednesday with steam coming from their ears. They likely won’t be the last.
Brazdeikis watched the final minute of the back-and-forth first half from the bench after picking up his second foul. Without him, Michigan turned to Matthews, who sank one 3-pointer that opened up due to good ball movement, and then Poole, who hit another 3 from the corner in the final seconds of the half. That was six more points in less than a minute to respond to another North Carolina parry and take a lead into halftime.
Poole climbed on his teammates’ backs as they celebrated their way into the locker room while a sell-out crowd threatened to send the roof of the Crisler Center into orbit. After another big win for the Wolverines, the ceiling is only getting higher.
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