'Unique evening': Michigan topples Montana after slow start

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Wichita, Kan. — For a team that hadn’t played in almost two weeks, Michigan certainly played the part.

Early fouls and turnovers. A slow offensive start. Sloppy execution.

The third-seeded Wolverines trudged through it all and overcame a 10-point deficit to top No. 14 seed Montana, 61-47, in an ugly first-round NCAA Tournament game Thursday night at Intrust Bank Arena.

Charles Matthews had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 11 for Michigan (29-7), which improved to 7-1 in the first game of the NCAA Tournament under coach John Beilein.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 61, Montana 47

The Wolverines will move on to face No. 6 seed Houston, a 67-65 winner over 11th-seeded San Diego State, in a second-round game on at 9:50 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on TBS.

“It was a unique, long evening in Wichita,” Beilein said. “I'm really pleased that we could get that win over them. They didn't make us look very good on offense. Fortunately, our defense was outstanding when it needed to be. Down 10-0, and after that they scored 37 points the rest of the game.

“So really pleased that we were able to still get a ‘W’ despite the great defense Montana played.”

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After a flat first half, things didn’t get any prettier in the second half but Michigan was able to scrap together an 11-0 run to take a 44-30 lead with 9:53 remaining and never looked back.

During the spurt, which lasted over nine minutes, Zavier Simpson hit a 3-pointer at the 17:25 mark when Michigan looked to finally establish a rhythm — and then the shot clock went out.

After a 10-minute delay, Michigan struggled to find its footing again before Duncan Robinson and Simpson capped the flurry with consecutive layups give the Wolverines their largest lead.

Through it all, Montana scored just two points over the first 10 minutes of the half, missed 12 straight shots and went over nine minutes without scoring a point until Ahmaad Rorie hit a 3-pointer to make it 44-33 with 9:30 remaining.

“Waiting all day to play and the power going off on the clock, it was just weird,” Abdur-Rahkman said.  “Shots weren't falling, but we played defense and to get through that is a testament to our team.”

Montana managed to cut it to 51-42 on a Rorie jumper with 2:41 left but it was short-lived as Abdur-Rahkman made two free throws on the ensuing possession to reestablish a double-digit advantage.

The Wolverines led by at least nine the rest of the way as Abdur-Rahkman, Matthews and Robinson combined to make eight free throws in the final two minutes to salt the victory away.

Rorie and Michael Oguine each had 15 points for Montana (26-8), which shot 25 percent (7-for-28) in the second half and 32.1 percent (18-for-56) for the game. The 47 points scored was also a season low for the Grizzlies.

“Charles Matthews stepped up and had a big game. If you look at it, he's really the difference in this ballgame, because both teams struggled offensively,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “We didn't have one guy over 50 percent. … It was a defensive struggle, and their defense was a little better than ours tonight.

“They don't beat themselves. They defend and they don't take bad shots. So, that's going to be a very difficult team to beat.”

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The first half was about as rough an opening act as Michigan could have envisioned coming off a 10-day layoff. The Wolverines committed a turnover right after the tip and Abdur-Rahkman picked up a foul 11 seconds into the game.

The nightmarish start continued as Simpson was whistled twice before the first media timeout and Montana scored the first 10 points before Matthews put Michigan on the board with a driving layup with 15:43 left in the first half.

“I liked our composure at that time,” Beilein said. “We had to fight through and I said, ‘Somebody has got to make a basket and then let’s win the next four minutes. We lost this one 10-0. Let’s win the next four minutes and pretty soon we could be tied by half.’”

After Montana continued to get to the rim and pushed its lead to 17-10 at the 11:06 mark, things started to finally take a turn for Michigan. The Grizzlies missed nine of their next 11 shots — several on close-range looks — and the Wolverines responded with a 16-4 run to take a 26-21 lead with 2:31 left in the half.

The spurt started with seven straight points, four coming on a layup and dunk by Matthews, before Abdur-Rahkman buried a 3-pointer to give Michigan its first lead, 22-19, at the 3:59 mark. Matthews capped the flurry with another dunk and layup to give the Wolverines a five-point advantage.

Rorie knocked down a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left cut the deficit to 31-28 at halftime, capping a rocky half that — all things considered – could have been much worse.

“It was weird day, but I'm glad we got through it because the weird days are the scariest days,” Simpson said. “A game like this, come in weird and the second half the crowd isn't really there. You want to hurry up and get to the next game, but then you got to focus on this game.

“I'm just glad for my team. We stayed mentally locked in, stayed focused and made sure we took care of business.”