‘Mini Kobe’ Charles Matthews stars in Hollywood shadows for Michigan

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Charles Matthews reacts in the second half.

Los Angeles — It was danger time for Michigan.

Free throw by free throw, No. 9 seed Florida State was slowly scratching, clawing and shifting the scales of the game in its favor during the final 10 minutes of Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown.

Then redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews delivered for third-seeded Michigan. With Florida State’s Phil Cofer draped all over him, he sliced into to the lane from the right wing, stopped on a dime, shook Cofer with a subtle shot fake, pivoted off his left foot and knocked down a momentum-changing fadeaway jumper to give Michigan a 49-44 lead with 3:51 remaining.

Matthews’ clutch bucket came during a 1-for-6 shooting stretch as a team and sparked a 7-0 run that helped give Michigan just enough cushion to pull out a 58-54 victory at Staples Center.

“Mini Kobe,” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “That’s his favorite player and when he hit that step-back shot, that’s his shot. Please go in, please go in and it went in. We needed a bucket like that and he got us one.”

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It’s what Matthews did from the start to finish against Florida State. He scored eight of Michigan’s first 15 points of the game, converting a pair of three-point plays — one on a dunk over a defender and the other on a floater in the lane — and throwing down a fast-break alley-oop.

Then after Michigan went the final 5:45 of the first half without a made field goal, Matthews knocked down a 3-pointer and muscled up a layup as the Wolverines opened the second half on an 11-2 run.

He finished with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds, shot a respectable 4-for-6 from the free-throw line, played 39 of a possible 40 minutes and added two blocks for good measure. It was a performance worthy of him winning All-West Region Most Outstanding Player.

But more importantly, it was the type of all-around showing that has been on full display throughout the NCAA Tournament and has elevated Michigan to a legit title contender.

“He’s playing at a whole different level from what I’ve seen during the season,” freshman forward Isaiah Livers said. “His approach to the game is so different. He’s a lot more calm, he’s a lot more vocal leading and I’m very proud of him for how far he’s come. I know about how much work he’s put in and it’s all showing right now.”

According to Michigan coach John Beilein, Matthews was struggling in January to understand what his role would be. It contributed to a rough February and end to the regular season, where he averaged eight points, six rebounds and 1.9 assists, and shot 37.9 percent from the field and 45 percent at the free-throw line in seven games.

However, Matthews never got an attitude or got down on himself, Wagner said. Instead, Beilein continued to take his time with Matthews, who has bought in “1000 percent” to the culture and individual workouts, and the result has been the big numbers he has churned out as of late.

After seeing a slight uptick in his production in the Big Ten tournament, everything has seemingly come together at the right time for Matthews. He is averaging 16.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists, and is shooting 52 percent from the field and 68.8 percent from the line in the NCAA Tournament.

“I just understand that it’s all a journey,” Matthews said. “There’s ups and downs. I can’t lose confidence when shots not going in or get down on myself. I just continue to fight and battle.”

And there’s no telling how far Michigan’s journey would have traversed into March if not for Matthews’ relentless defense and willingness to work on his “blind spots,” like getting two feet in the paint and perfectly pivoting to set up that second-half shot against Florida State.

“What he’s showcasing now is what he’s been doing,” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson said. “He’s just finally got the chance to prove it and that’s definitely his game.

“Now is the season where players make plays, as our coaches say. We just love him on the team.”


Twitter @jamesbhawkins