Ann Arbor — It seemed only fitting that during final exams week the Wolverines would face a daunting test of their own: closing out a game at the free-throw line.
It’s a situation No. 5 Michigan had yet to face because the last few minutes of most contests — Northwestern being the lone exception — have largely been a formality.
That time finally came on Saturday and Michigan passed, with redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and sophomore guard Jordan Poole combining to go 4-for-4 from the line in the final 2:41 to stave off Western Michigan in a 70-62 win.
“I was worried about it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Charles just put those right in and Jordan as well. It's always scary when you haven't had those opportunities. Normally in Game 11, you've had three or four or five of those opportunities and that was the first one.
“That was big for Charles. In fact, I was drawing up the play to get Jordan Poole the last shot if they were going to foul us and I was trying to say, 'Do I want Charles to get the ball? Should he be the second option?' I was ready to make Iggy (Brazdeikis) the second option then I realized Iggy was 0-for-3 and Charles had just made five of six, so I made Charles the second option. We didn’t throw it to him, but I had that type of trust in him.”
With Western Michigan hanging tough and refusing to go away, that didn’t mean there wasn’t an uneasy feeling in Crisler Center when Matthews, a 58-percent free-throw shooter, was fouled with 2:41 left in a five-point game.
The fact Matthews had split his first four free-throw attempts and missed three straight at one point in the first half only added to the nervous energy.
But Matthews came through, swishing both free throws to push Michigan’s lead back to seven during a back-and-forth stretch where the teams traded points over the final six minutes.
“Just next-shot mentality,” said Matthews, who made a career-best 11 free throws. “I'm glad they went in.”
Still, the Broncos didn’t pack up their bags and leave quietly. They used a fast-break layup off a turnover and two free throws to pull within 66-60 before intentionally fouling Poole with 39 seconds left.
Just like Matthews, Poole, an 80-percent free-throw shooter, calmly sank both attempts to help the Wolverines keep their perfect record intact and make sure their glaring weakness didn't cost them.
Granted, it’s a crunch-time situation Michigan could’ve avoided. The Wolverines went 5-for-13 on free throws in the first half with Matthews missing half of his eight attempts and Brazdeikis missing all three of his.
Michigan shook it off and bounced back by going 10-for-12 from the line in the second half, with Matthews going 7-for-8 and making his last four attempts.
“They got their free-throw problem worked out. They hit their free throws in the second half,” Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said. “That kind of kept us in there in the first half with them missing their free throws.”
It was the third time this season Michigan, which ranks No. 283 in the nation in free-throw percentage (65.4 percent), has missed at least 10 free throws in a game.
But for a team where misses would snowball in similar situations last season, it was at least a positive sign the Wolverines had no trouble clearing their first late-game hurdle and making their free throws when it mattered the most.
“We haven't had to win the game from the foul line yet this year,” Beilein said. “They foul us and we go 4-for-4 down the stretch. These are things that will help us as we continue to go forward.”