Chapel Hill, N.C. — Michigan coach John Beilein was trying to make the best of a dire situation.
With the Wolverines trailing by as much as 29 in the second half against No. 13 North Carolina, Beilein opted to dig deep into his bench and give his underclassmen a chance to prove themselves in Wednesday night’s 86-71 loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at the Dean Smith Center.
As a result, all three freshmen — guard Eli Brooks, wing Jordan Poole and forward Isaiah Livers — received double-digit minutes as they got their first taste playing in a hostile environment.
Brooks, who started his fourth straight game at point guard, finished with four points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal and one turnover in 18 minutes. Livers came off the bench and recorded nine points and five rebounds in 18 minutes, and Poole chipped in four points and a steal in 12 minutes.
While their performance was far from flawless — Poole and Brooks each missed a free throw and shot a combined 2-for-11 from the field (1-for-9 on 3-pointers) — it was at least encouraging considering the freshmen finished the game with three of the team’s five top plus-minus ratings.
Poole had a team-high plus-10, followed by Livers (plus-8), sophomore wing Ibi Watson (plus-7), sophomore center Austin Davis (plus-2) and Brooks (plus-2), who was the lone starter who didn’t finish a rating of at least minus-15.
“I think that again, you’re playing first true road game, you’re playing the defending national champion and it’s probably not the easiest way to get it started,” Beilein said of his freshmen. “Those guys, I can’t say one of them is making giant steps, but I can tell you they’re making little incremental steps every day.”
They also showed fight and an unwillingness to pack it in over the final six minutes after the game was well decided. Along with Watson, the underclassmen used 19-7 run to cut a 25-point deficit nearly in half and make the final score at least look respectable.
Watson scored all seven of his points in the last four minutes, while Livers and Poole both hit a 3-pointer, Poole drew a foul on a defensive rebound that led to a free throw and Livers scored on an offensive putback with 10 seconds left.
“I’m very proud of the young guys how they came in the end and kind of made it not close, but made it a legit game,” said junior center Moritz Wagner, who led Michigan with 20 points and nine rebounds. “They cut it down to (13), made good plays and played it as if it was a 0-0 game.”
And with a rotation that’s still in flux — 10 players were on the floor for at least nine minutes – it gave the underclassmen the opportunity to learn and make their case.
“I don’t know who those next guys are (in the rotation),” Beilein said. “We’re trying to figure it out and that’s why we just said the heck with it in the second half.
“We’re down 30. Let’s let the young guys play and they played really well. Albeit some of it was against their second team, but even (against) their first team they did all right. That’s where we got to grow.”
NOT LOCKED IN
Last weekend against Michigan State in one of the PK80 Invitational tournament finals, North Carolina shot 24.6 percent from the field (15-for-61) and 5.6 percent on 3-pointers (1-for-18) — the worst single-game marks in the program’s 108-year history — and scored just 48 points in the loss.
Against Michigan, the Tar Heels topped that point total with 1:27 left in the first half and had 51 points at halftime.
“They were hitting tough shots but those are really good players, so that’s not a surprise,” Wagner said. “We just got to be better. We weren’t following the game plan, we weren’t shortening the game as we were supposed to and that’s just what happens.”
In the first half, North Carolina shot 64.5 percent from the field (20-for-31) and 54.5 percent from 3-point range (6-for-11), and never missed two shots in a row over the opening 20 minutes. The Tar Heels finished the game shooting 54.8 percent (34-for-62).
“I don’t think we were ready for the quickness and the speed and the precision that they run with," Beilein said. "We just weren’t locked in defensively. I can’t tell you why.
“We’ve seen it before. We got to shore it up. I had a very quiet talk with the team. We laid an egg for most of the first half defensively, half of the first half offensively and I got to find out the reasons behind that. I’m not smart enough to get that all right now.”