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Niyo: Jordan Poole has final word in Michigan’s wild win

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Jordan Poole (2) right celebrates with Michigan guard Charles Matthews (1) after the win.

Wichita, Kan. – The freshmen had some homework to do.

In the giddy aftermath of the best night of their lives, that thought did occur to Michigan’s Jordan Poole.

He’d just buried a shot that he’ll remember forever – a legs-splayed, 30-footer at the buzzer to beat Houston and send the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles – and then sprinted around the court, arms wide and mouth agape, as his teammates gave chase.

But nearly 30 minutes later, after another raucous locker room celebration that featured Michigan coach John Beilein dousing his players while wearing a rain poncho, there was a brief “reality check,” as Poole put it.

His roommate across the way, fellow freshman Isaiah Livers, the former baseball star who’d rifled the baseline inbounds pass with 3.6 seconds on the clock and the Wolverines trailing, 63-61, was already bracing for what is to come.

Poole likes to talk, you see – he really likes to talk – and after this, Livers sighed, “I know I’m never gonna hear the end of it.”

Poole heard that, of course. Just like senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman heard him on the court, yelling for the ball after he’d received the long pass near midcourt – a sidearm throw, “like Stafford,” Livers laughed – and turned to face Houston’s defense and Michigan’s destiny all at once.

This was the moment that would define their season, and possibly end some of their careers. Poole knew that. So did Livers, who was nearly in tears on the bench during Michigan’s earlier timeout in the waning moments, having committed a foul on an offensive rebound with 44 seconds left that gave the sixth-seeded Cougars the lead.

But so did Beilein, which is why he inserted Poole into the game for Charles Matthews – “I don’t think Coach B has ever subbed a freshman in with less than four seconds to go in a game,” Livers said – and why he drew up essentially the same play he’d drawn up at the end of a last-second win against Maryland back in January.

It’s called “Indiana,” and while the confusion it creates is by design, the shot it creates ideally isn’t supposed to be the one Poole took. Plan A is for Abdur-Rahkman to drive to the basket if there’s enough time and space. But this time, he was double-teamed as he crossed the half-court line, which is also when he heard Poole calling his name.

“I was just screaming for the ball,” said Poole, who isn’t shy about doing just that. “I was thirsty. I was definitely thirsty. Because I’ve been hitting shots like that in practice all year.”

Crazy dreams

He’d do it last fall when he was running with the scout team, drilling shots at the buzzer to torment the starters. He hit another one to win a team scrimmage last Friday, too, less than an hour after he was sent to run the stairs by Beilein for making “a freshman play.”

“And I’m always the one when the clock’s winding down at shootaround, I’m dribbling the ball and I’m waiting to see if I can make the last shot,” Poole said, shrugging.

So even before he exited the huddle late Saturday night, after Houston’s Devin Davis had missed a pair of free throws that could’ve sealed the Wolverines’ fate, and on a night where the officials seemed to determined to steal the show – there were as many fouls called (41) as there were field goals made in this game – Poole admits his mind started to wander.

“Actually, before I went out there, I’m dreaming, like, ‘What if I hit this shot, in a situation like this?’” he said. “We’re about to lose, and I’m thinking like that. It’s crazy.”

But that’s Poole. Ask anyone.

Like senior Duncan Robinson, who’d provided an early spark Saturday but later fouled out, and was sitting on the bench in a daze, thinking, “I don’t want to go out like this.” He calls Poole “refreshing,” and then in the next breath, the former Division III transfer who turns 24 next month, smiles and adds, “but I say that with a grain of salt. … It can be a lot, but I wouldn’t change him. He’s truly one of a kind.”

By Robinson’s count, there’s three or four players on this eclectic team “that I can confidently say I will never meet anyone like this again in my life, which is cool.”

But Poole’s the youngest of those, and the one most likely to run afoul of Beilein, his 65-year-old coach who never really used to talk about “swag” but now talks about it all the time when the subject turns to this precocious 18-year-old from Milwaukee.

“I mean, he's got a lot of confidence,” Beilein said, “and he'll tell you about it, too. He's not afraid to speak his mind.”

This is no time for fear, obviously. Everyone understands the stakes when it’s one-and-done time. Even the freshmen, who’ve grown up watching these games. And roaring at these finishes.

“This is what March Madness is made of – shots like this, and situations like that,” said Poole, who only played 11 minutes Saturday – four in the second half – and was coming off a dismal Big Ten tournament showing that saw him go 5-of-19 from the field and 0-for-9 from beyond the arc.

Like Livers, the shot he remembers best from tournaments was the one Michigan’s Trey Burke hit in a regional semifinal against Kansas in 2013. Funny thing is, though, “I was just watching the TV, watching the game, and I didn’t know anything about him,” said Poole, who was an eighth-grader at the time. “I’d never thought about going to Michigan, ever.”

How do you do it?

But now he was here, and the pass was coming his way, and then as he rose and fired, there was a defender coming his way, too. Corey Davis Jr. was there to contest it, not yet realizing he was a split-second too late and inches too short.

And as Poole squared the basket and let it fly, kicking his legs out and falling on his backside as he watched it go, he knew. Did it feel good? “I didn’t feel bad,” Poole laughed. Davis couldn’t say the same, though, as he watched the ball hit the back of the rim and drop neatly through the net.

Livers was racing toward the hoop at that point, and he saw it, too.

“But I was shocked,” he said. “It took me a second to realize that my roommate just hit the biggest shot of his life.”

By then, his roommate was racing down the court the other way, with junior center Moritz Wagner right on his heels screaming.

“I didn’t think I would ever say that chasing Jordan Poole around is the greatest thing ever in my life,” Wagner laughed, “but it’s an incredible feeling.”

One that Poole didn’t want to end, as he eluded his teammates in front of the Houston bench, then raced back the entire length of the court – Wagner breaking off from the pack to console Davis, who’d later end up slumped over, heaving in despair - before getting enveloped in an elated mob of maize and blue.

Much later, in the locker room, where the floor was a giant puddle after the water fight – “The Poole party is open!” players yelled – there was Livers trying to sum it up, while Poole finally checked his phone and found 394 new text message. No – wait! – now there were 502, with more on the way.

“I’m never gonna hear the end of it,” Livers laughed. “And I’m never gonna stop telling him about it. Every day. ‘Bro, you really just hit the shot to go to the Sweet 16.’ You barely played all game. How do you just hit a 35-footer like that?”

It’s a rhetorical question, he knows. Because he knows his roommate better than anyone on the team. He knows the frustrations that were sometimes hidden from view during the inevitable rookie growing pains. And he knows the wild-eyed dreams that framed them.

Then again, he also knows quiet time isn’t really an option at this point.

“Yeah, I might be in his ear a little bit,” Poole said. “But we’ve got a paper we’ve got to knock out and a presentation on Monday. So I can’t bug him too much about it.”

It’s for a civics class, apparently.

“Greek mythology,” Poole said.

Something about legends, perhaps.