Chapel Hill, N.C. — Michigan coach John Beilein knew there was a fatal flaw lurking under the surface.
When the going gets rough, who is going to step up?
It’s a question that went unanswered Wednesday night when No. 13 North Carolina ran past Michigan, 86-71, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at the Dean Smith Center.
“It reminds me of a couple years ago we went to SMU and we just couldn't get anything going and we lost our confidence,” Beilein said. “There was a sequence in that first half we couldn't make a play and then that's exactly what I felt this team would be.
"The weakness this year is when we needed somebody to settle down and make a play that we weren't ready to make a smart play at that time, it would turn into hero basketball and it would end up creating offense for them. That's exactly what happened.”
Junior center Moritz Wagner (20 points, nine rebounds) and redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews (12 points) got off to a torrid start, combining to make seven of Michigan's eight consecutive shots to help the Wolverines take a two-point lead six minutes into the first half.
Wagner continued to take advantage of one-on-one matchups as Michigan kept pace through the first 13 minutes. But then everything started to snowball after senior forward Duncan Robinson couldn't finish a point-blank layup in transition.
The back-breaking miss led to a fast-break layup the other way for North Carolina, triggering an 11-0 run that put the Tar Heels up for good.
The pivotal stretch exposed the harsh reality that when Michigan needed someone to step up and stem the tide, nobody rose to the occasion — on either end of the floor. Neither Wagner or Matthews was able to make a shot when Michigan needed it the most. Wagner missed a jumper and was whistled for an offensive foul while Matthews turned the ball over.
And senior co-captains Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson? Both clanked a 3-point attempt.
With the offense struggling, no Wolverine was able to make a play on defense and come up with a much-needed stop. Luke Maye, who scored most of his 27 points in the paint, got loose for a 3-pointer. The inability to secure a defensive board led to an offensive rebound and uncontested dunk by Garrison Brooks. Fouls by both Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman led to four made free throws.
By the time grad transfer Jaaron Simmons finally ended North Carolina's spurt with a 3-pointer, it was all but too late as the Wolverines were staring at a 14-point halftime deficit and flattened by a crushing wave of momentum.
"Sometimes when you're out there it's hard to feel (the need for a big play), but when you're on the bench you see it," Wagner said. "At some point I was like, 'We're missing a spark.'
"We can't put our heads down once we fall back a little bit. We didn't stick together and that's the biggest thing we got to work on."
Beilein said the loss will serve as teaching point like the "Montessori experience." His players have touched it, felt it and now know what this type of feeling is like afterward.
“In games like this you're playing in a national championship atmosphere,” Beilein said.” You can't be like, I don't know if this matters but let me just try this shot right now or make this play that's not there. Or I'm just going to come out of my stance and tell somebody to switch with me. I think it's expected of all teams.
“We went to SMU a couple years ago and it wasn't even a game. It was never a game. We came back, we made the NCAA Tournament with a similar young team like this. It's one that we got to grow from. But I'm disappointed that some of the veterans right now weren't as gritty as they've been in the past."