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Jaaron Simmons gives Michigan ‘big-time’ jolt in win over Montana

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Montana forward Fabijan Krslovic (20) and Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie (14) guard Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons (5) in the first half.

Wichita, Kan. – Michigan grad transfer Jaaron Simmons had waited all his life for this moment.

When the opportunity arose early in the first half after sophomore guard Zavier Simpson picked up two fouls, he made sure he didn’t miss in his NCAA Tournament debut.

Simmons provided a needed jolt with six points in 14 minutes off the bench and helped third-seeded Michigan’s offense get on track in Thursday’s ugly 61-47 first-round win over No. 14 seed Montana at Intrust Bank Arena.

"I'm always prepared from the jump ball because anything can happen. Somebody can twist an ankle or anything  knock on wood  but I was prepared. I was ready," said Simmons, who finished 3-for-3 from the field. “I had confidence going in, but to be able to help the team and get some points on the board when we were struggling was big.

“I was just trying to be aggressive, get downhill, push the tempo and just made plays for myself or my teammates."

When Simmons checked into the game at the 15:59 mark, Michigan had missed its first four shots, committed three turnovers and found itself in a 10-0 hole. That quickly changed as the Wolverines scored six straight over the next two minutes with Simmons running the show.

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From that point, Simmons scored three of Michigan’s next four baskets all on driving layups – including one of the and-1 variety – and by the time he checked out at the 7:12 mark, the Wolverines whittled Montana’s lead down to 17-15. His last basket also helped start a 16-4 run that eventually gave Michigan a 26-21 lead with 2:31 left in the half.

“If someone goes down, someone else steps up,” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “The dude never has an attitude. He comes in, does his job. It could've went different for him and he just comes in and gives an energetic push and does his thing offensively in a time when nothing worked out. It kind of gave us an offensive push, which was big time.”

While Simpson dominated the time share as Michigan leaned on its defense in the second half, the 11 first-half minutes Simmons provided helped bridge the gap and get things moving in the right direction after a messy start.

“He never played in the NCAA Tournament and he really wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament and here he is – Zavier the first time he's in foul trouble and he goes in and gets us 3-for-3,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I'm really happy that he could do that and now he'll have a whole bunch of confidence coming off the bench in the next game.”

Closing it out

Free throws haven’t exactly been Michigan’s strong suit this season and Thursday’s game was no exception.

The Wolverines shot 63.6 percent (14-for-22) from the stripe, but the encouraging sign was only two of those misses came on 10 attempts in the final 2:01 of game when it was time to put the game away.

Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews went 5-for-6 down the stretch – and finished 6-for-8 on the night – while senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson were a combined 3-for-4.

“I think we've just been in those situations now,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We haven't been in a lot of close games where we have to make free throw, so the guys get experience now and feel a little bit more comfortable taking the free throws and making them.”

Slam dunks

Beilein said freshman guard Jordan Poole didn’t play at all in the second half because the defense was in sync and he didn’t want to disrupt it. Plus, the 10-minute delay to fix the shot clock helped provide enough rest.

“In hindsight, I probably should have played a couple guys and got Charles some rest, but he was playing great defense,” Beilein said. “Just like when guys are hitting 3s, you don't take him out. I want to keep the defense in there.”

Poole finished 1-for-2 from the field with a made 3-pointer in eight minutes.

… After making a brief one-minute appearance in the Big Ten tournament, freshman guard Eli Brooks scored on a floater and dished out an assist in five minutes.

Beilein gave Brooks the nod after one of his assistants changed his mind when he was going to put Simpson back in during the first half when he had two fouls.

“He had a great day (Wednesday) and we could not stay in front of him,” Beilein said of Brooks. “He did a great job. He played with great energy.”

It was just the third time in the last 15 games Brooks received at least five minutes of playing time.

… Michigan finished with 14 turnovers and 11 assists. It’s the third time this season the Wolverines have had more turnovers than assists in a game (nine assists, 10 turnovers at Texas on Dec. 12; six assists, 12 turnovers at Nebraska on Jan. 18).