Michigan shakes off jitters, coasts by Texas Southern in first round

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

West Lafayette, Ind. — Grad transfer guard Mike Smith admitted he and some other Wolverines had some pregame jitters before their first NCAA Tournament game.

It was hard to tell.

Michigan used a strong first-half effort to build an 18-point halftime lead in the No. 1 versus No. 16 matchup against Texas Southern and took care of business with an 82-66 wire-to-wire victory Saturday at Mackey Arena.

“I was a little nervous at first,” said Smith, who finished with 18 points and five assists. “I've watched it all my life, and to finally be a part of this was surreal during tip-off. But after that, I don't think anybody else was nervous.

“Me being the oldest on the team and I was the most nervous, but it was a feeling I will never forget. And, obviously, the job's not done. We have to lock in and get ready for the next game.”

Michigan advances to face No. 8 seed LSU, a 76-61 winner over No. 9 seed St. Bonaventure, in the second round at 7:10 p.m. Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game will be televised on CBS.

Michigan's Mike Smith (12) drives to the basket past Texas Southern's Michael Weathers (20) during the second half on Saturday.

After leaning on its defense and dominating much of the first half, Michigan (21-4) kept adding to its cushion in the second half. A baseline drive from junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and a jumper from freshman center Hunter Dickinson extended the lead to 50-26 with 17:15 remaining.

But Michigan wasn’t entirely out of the woods. The Wolverines held the Tigers at bay until they started to coast a bit and took their foot off the gas down the stretch. Texas Southern kept driving the ball to the rim and went on a 14-4 run fueled by free throws to pull within 73-61 with 3:40 to go.

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Michigan used a pair of free throws from senior guard Eli Brooks to push the lead back to 14 before Dickinson was called for a flagrant foul and fouled out. Texas Southern (17-9) had a chance to cut it to single digits but missed the two free throws and came up empty on its ensuing two possessions.

The Wolverines effectively slammed the door with a 3-pointer from sophomore wing Franz Wagner and driving layup from Smith to make it 80-63 with 42 seconds remaining.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 82, Texas Southern 66

“I like how we came out aggressive. We played defense. We played really hard,” Smith said. “What I didn't like is we kind of let up. We played to the score, and they came back. Obviously, there were some calls that didn't go our way, but we can't let that hinder us and affect us in a way where we played to their pace.

“That’s on me to not let that happen, and I should have taken control of the game when they started pressing. I take full responsibility for that. But we finished strong, and it feels really good to get a win.”

Dickinson finished with 16 points and Brooks added 11 points for Michigan, which led by double digits over the final 25 minutes. Johns made his second straight start in place of senior forward Isaiah Livers (foot injury) and chipped in 11 points.

Michael Weathers scored 24 and John Walker III 11 for Texas Southern, which shot 35.9% from the floor (23-for-64), went 1-for-12 from 3-point range and made 19 free throws.

“Unfortunately, we didn't get off to a great start,” Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones said. “But at the end of the day, I thought they emptied their tank out there on the floor and played extremely hard and didn't leave anything out there and have any regrets.

“I want to commend our guys for the way that they finished and continued to battle against one of the top four teams in the country.”

The Wolverines generated open looks with ease from the start and jumped out to a 10-2 lead less than three minutes into the game. Dickinson took advantage of his size down low. Wagner got to the basket with his long strides. Brooks buried a couple early 3s.

Even when the offense cooled a bit, the Wolverines remained comfortably in the driver’s seat thanks to their defense. Michigan’s gave up nothing easy around the rim and held Texas Southern to one-shot possessions as the Tigers made just three field goals over the opening nine minutes.

By the time Texas Southern reached the double-digit mark, Michigan’s offense had kicked back into gear and the Wolverines took control with a 15-4 run. During the spurt, Michigan attacked the basket and used a pair of 3-pointers from freshman guard Zeb Jackson to open a 29-12 lead with 7:35 left in the first half.

Texas Southern fought back behind Weathers to cut the deficit to nine at the 5:47 mark, but it didn’t last long. Dickinson immediately countered with a hook, the Wolverines continued to rack up free throws and the Tigers were limited to two baskets the rest of the half.

That led to a 42-24 halftime lead that Michigan never relinquished as coach Juwan Howard, Smith and numerous other Wolverines secured their first NCAA Tournament win.

“It means a lot, man, because of what this group has dealt with since last year,” Howard said. “We've done a really good job of now having this opportunity to play but being disciplined throughout the process and sacrificing a lot.

“I'm so proud of these kids and what they've dealt with this year. Now to be able to play this season, look forward to March, be part of the March Madness, it's a blessing.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins