UM’s young players weather adversity in victory

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — When Michigan coach John Beilein looked at the nonconference schedule, he knew his team was going to face adversity.

He might’ve not expected it to come as soon as the regular-season opener against North Florida.

The Wolverines faced a stiff test from North Florida over the first 30 minutes and struggled to create any separation until a 21-2 second-half run helped them pull away for an 86-66 victory Saturday night at Crisler Center.

Michigan (1-0) twice faced seven-point deficits in the first half, led by only two at halftime and trailed for roughly 12 total minutes. But in a game where three freshmen and four sophomores saw action for the Wolverines, Beilein was pleased with how his young team responded and handled the early scare.

“I’m glad but I hated it when it was happening,” Beilein said. “I’m glad that first half wasn’t a 25-point first half. I’m glad now that it was tied with 10 (minutes) to go. It could’ve went either way, and we made just enough plays. Zavier (Simpson) really sparked our defense, had the nine assists, so it’s good to go through a little bit of that while we continue to teach, and then empower them of how you win at this level.”

Several of the underclassmen provided meaningful contributions when the game was still in its nip-and-tuck stage, particularly in the second half.

With Michigan leading 46-42 with 13:48 to play, freshman guard Eli Brooks checked in and ran the offense. By the time he checked out at the 7:54 mark, he helped the Wolverines extend their lead to 57-51 before the starters took back over and overwhelmed North Florida down the stretch.

Also during that same six-minute span with Brooks on the court, sophomore center Austin Davis scored on an offensive putback and split a pair of free throws in a two-minute stint and sophomore wing Ibi Watson knocked down a jumper for two of his five points.

In all, the three freshmen — guard Jordan Poole, forward Isaiah Livers and Brooks — combined for seven points, three steals and two assists, while the four sophomores — center Jon Teske, Watson, Simpson and Davis — combined for 13 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and three steals.

“I think we should give kudos to our young guys because we kept fighting,” said junior Charles Matthews, who finished with 20 points with 9-for-19 shooting. “We went through all that adversity in the first half and a lot of teams we would’ve just held their head. Our guys continued to play with grit, continued to play with passion and we continued to stay together. Without unity you continue to fall.”

While the resolve the team showed was a good early sign, senior Duncan Robinson said the win also served as a much-needed teaching moment for the younger players.

“We've got to understand that we have to have a heightened sense of urgency all the way through. We can't just count on us to be more talented than teams and just come in and beat them," said Robinson, who finished with a team-high 21 points. "We've got to play harder and I thought we had stretches where we did a really good job of that and stretches where we didn’t.

“You kind of got to expect (to face adversity) at some point in the season. So in the first game, hopefully we get those jitters out of the way, just move forward and learn from it.”

Put a ring on it

Prior to the game, the Wolverines celebrated last season’s Big Ten Tournament championship with a banner-raising ceremony.

Beilein passed out the rings to each player before members from the Maize Rage, Michigan’s student cheering section, unveiled the banner.

“I didn’t really think of it ahead (of time),” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “I didn’t think of how special it was going to be but to see that ring and your name on it and all the bling bling, that is pretty cool.”

The ring had an airplane inscribed on one side of it, signifying the mishap the team experienced the day before the tournament when high winds forced a rejected takeoff and the plane slid off a runway at Willow Run Airport.

“It’s more than just basketball in that sense. I’m very proud to have one of those and that’s my first one because in Europe you don’t do that,” Wagner said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Former guard Derrick Walton Jr. and former walk-on forward Sean Lonergan were on hand for the event as well as former forward Zak Irvin’s parents, James and Marcia.

While several Wolverines took time to soak up the moment prior to tip-off, Matthews wasn't one of them.

“Nah, I was ready to play,” he said. “I remember those moments in practices, but I was like, ‘All right, we won that already. It’s time to get ready for this season.’ ”