Michigan lacks 'grit,' tumbles to high-flying Tar Heels
Chapel Hill, N.C. — It seemed like a perfect storm was brewing.
North Carolina was coming off a historically poor offensive showing and returning to the confines of the Dean Smith Center, where the Tar Heels have been nearly unbeatable the past two seasons.
Michigan used a blistering start to keep pace early but ultimately couldn’t weather the storm as it joined the long list of Chapel Hill casualties, falling to the No. 13 Tar Heels, 86-71, Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Moritz Wagner had 20 points and nine rebounds and Charles Matthews scored 12 for the Wolverines (6-2), who fell to 2-6 in road games in the Challenge and came up short in the first meeting between longtime coaches John Beilein and Roy Williams.
"They just came from (the PK80 Invitational tournament in) Portland and we just came from Hawaii,” Beielin said. “We looked like we were in a daze today, not them."
The first five minutes of the game was a frantic shootout as the two teams got out to a fast and furious start. After a turnover on the opening possession, Michigan made eight straight shots but couldn’t contain North Carolina (6-1) as the Wolverines held a slim 20-18 lead with 14:21 left in the first half.
Wagner made his first four shots from the field — a pair of jumpers, a layup and a 3-pointer — Eli Brooks knocked down a corner 3-pointer and Matthews threw down a dunk and buried two 3-pointers that beat the shot clock during the opening blitz.
But that only proved to be an aberration and an unsustainable pace.
After the Wolverines missed their first shot on a 3-pointer by Duncan Robinson that rattled out at 13:42 mark, Michigan quickly came crashing back to earth over next four minutes while North Carolina scored seven straight points to take 25-20 lead with 11:20 remaining in the first half.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman snapped the cold stretch with a scooping layup and Michigan continued to hang around as Wagner found Zavier Simpson for 3-pointer before scoring on a twirling layup to tie it at 29 with 8:07 left in the first half.
After North Carolina scored five quick points on a Joel Berry (17 points) 3-pointer and a Luke Maye (27 points) jumper, Robinson nailed a 3-pointer to keep Michigan close and cut it to 34-32 at the 6:49 mark.
But after Robinson missed a fast-break layup that could’ve tied it, it triggered a critical swing. North Carolina quickly countered with a fast-break layup of its own by Theo Pinson to ignite an 11-0 spurt as Michigan watched the deficit swell to 45-32 with 3:27 left in the half.
"It was very disappointing the way we put our heads down once we got down 10,” Wagner said. “Instead of making it a tough game, all of a sudden it looked like a blowout. We can't do that. It's a growing and learning experience."
Jaaron Simmons knocked down 3-pointer to end a four-minute scoring drought and Wagner hit a layup to temporarily stop the bleeding in the final three minutes as North Carolina took a 51-37 lead into the break.
"I didn't think we had the grit in the first half when things went and we have been in games or slightly ahead,” Beilein said. “We haven't been in things where we had successive things go wrong over and over again. We just imploded a little bit there.”
However, the Tar Heels wasted little time ripping the wound back open in the second half and the Wolverines answered with a whimper.
Michigan missed nine of its first 10 shots — including six straight 3-pointers — and couldn’t get any stops on the defensive end. Over the first seven minutes, the Wolverines were outscored 17-2 and fell into an insurmountable 68-39 hole.
Michigan shot 3-for-19 from 3-point range in the second half and trailed by at least 20 the majority of the way until Ibi Watson scored seven straight in garbage time on a layup, jumper and 3-pointer to make the final score look respectable in the final minute.
"I think North Carolina might be that good and we're definitely not that bad, but we just certainly played poorly today and we just got to take it,” Beilein said.
"We deserve what we got and they deserve what they got. I think losing on Sunday (to Michigan State) didn't hurt them one bit. They came back with a real vengeance toward us, toward the Big Ten and we did not answer. We couldn't answer."