Jordan Poole, overdosed on swag from birth, lives for this moment.
It didn't matter that he'd made only two of his 13 three-point attempts in the month of March. It didn't matter that Michigan had gone 7-for-29 from beyond the arc in the game. It didn't matter that the game had been a brutal slog of a refshow. It didn't matter that Michigan had to inbound the ball from under their own basket. It didn't matter that Poole's view of the basket was so obscured he didn't see if the shot fell. It didn't matter that he's just a freshman.
Poole was born for this. With time about to expire, he took a sharp pass from MAAR, squared up, and fired. With a defender in his face, he struck the Jordan pose as he released the shot, then fell to the ground. Our hero arose and... ran for his life:
"After the shot went in I didn't know it went in," said Poole. "I looked at the bench. I was always thinking if I hit a shot like that I didn't want to get tackled. So I was kind of trying to avoid everybody, but I gave up and they tackled me and it was an amazing experience."
Instead of a heartbreaking early tournament exit to end the Michigan careers of MAAR, Duncan Robinson, and possibly Moe Wagner, the Wolverines move on to their second straight Sweet Sixteen in the most unimaginable way.
To everyone but Poole, that is. The young man had even planned his exit strategy.
Penn State really needed a big win to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume, and Michigan’s trip to Happy Valley on Senior Day gave them a great opportunity to ease their way up the bubble. Michigan played excellent defense in the first half and built a sizable lead, which was quickly erased by Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens early in the second half. The Wolverines responded, mixed in some different 2-3 defenses that threw Penn State off balance, and a couple Moe Wagner threes helped Michigan pull out to a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Solid free throw shooting down the stretch (9-10 on intentional fouls) staved off a Nittany Lion comeback and Michigan escaped with one of its best wins of the season against a desperate team that was on a hot streak.
Despite a few indifferent late-game possessions. Carr and Stevens - arguably the best guard in the conference and a very capable sidekick - scored 40 points combined, but it took them 39 shot equivalents to do it. Carr was held in check in the first half with solid defense from Zavier Simpson and timely double-teams; he knocked down a few threes of varying difficulty and got to the rim in the second half - finishing with a 21 point, 5 rebound, 6 assist line. Stevens was often guarded by Duncan Robinson when Michigan played man-to-man, and Robinson made him work for many of his points; the Wolverines initially allowed him too much room in the middle of the zone, but adjusted to harass him into a couple key mistakes.
No other Nittany Lion scored in double figures. Their best center, Mike Watkins, was injured while contesting a Charles Matthews layup, and only played five minutes on the night. That loss came early in the game, as both teams struggled to score: Michigan had five quick turnovers, and Penn State futilely tried post-ups on most possessions. Jon Teske had some impactful minutes on the defensive end in the first half after Wagner picked up his first foul. Even after Wagner returned, Penn State labored for good looks until a late burst by Stevens.
The Wolverines were able to build their initial lead with scoring off the bench from Robinson and Jordan Poole, who combined for 20 of Michigan’s 34 first half points. Robinson hit his first three-point attempt after screening and popping out of Michigan’s side curl action, had a nice cut for a layup, got Stevens to bite on a pump fake and knocked down a two-point jumper, blew by him for a layup, and hit another three. Poole made a corner three off an extra pass, had an absolutely ridiculous dunk over Julian Moore for an and-one, and got an easy transition layup. The freshman had a few rough moments, but his scoring was an upgrade over Matthews, who had his worst game of the season.
Michigan led by 13 at one point, but Penn State was much better out of the halftime break, scoring on their first four possessions: Carr got Simpson on his hip and took him to the rim for two, Michigan helped too far off Stevens for a three and gave Carr another one on a bad scramble situation, and Josh Reaves blew by Poole for a layup. Penn State took the lead before the first TV timeout, and it looked as if Michigan might get run out of the gym. John Beilein eventually turned to the zone, which was effective. The initial zone was spread too thin, but Michigan adjusted to sink into the high post when the ball was entered into Stevens.
Wagner made some big plays after that. He had made a few early threes (including one on the first possession of the game), but too often would pump-fake and drive into traffic for worse looks in the paint. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman made a play late in the shot clock to find Wagner for a corner three to break a Penn State run; shortly after, Matthews found him on the wing for another on a pick-and-pop - and instead of driving it on Stevens (a stretch-four who was guarding Wagner in a small-ball lineup), he hit a three over him. Penn State and Michigan traded buckets and stops for a while, until Wagner hit a tough layup on a drive against Moore and Poole nailed another corner three to trigger a Penn State timeout and give Michigan a 54-48 lead with seven minutes left.
Out of the timeout, Nazeer Bostick threw it right to Abdur-Rahkman in the zone, and Simpson scored an absurd swooping sky-hook over Carr on the next possession. Michigan had a few empty possessions from there, but stops on the defensive end - including Wagner drawing a charge on Stevens, Robinson emphatically rejecting a Stevens dunk, and Carr missing a couple threes - helped Michigan hold onto the lead. The Wolverines were up four with under three minutes left when Abdur-Rahkman hit a very tough layup over Reaves (maybe the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten, who helped force Abdur-Rahkman into an uncharacteristic four turnovers), Bostick missed a wild layup attempt, and Robinson hit a transition three for the dagger.
It was mostly a free throw exhibition from there: Robinson made both, Wagner made both, Simpson made one of two, Livers made both, and Poole made both. A few uncontested Penn State buckets were interspersed in there, but a comeback wasn’t possible. Michigan overcame an unusually high level of turnovers and a negative shot differential, mostly because they made 10-21 three-pointers (all but one came from Wagner, Robinson, and Poole). Robinson had a great game - in addition to his team-high 19 points, he had three blocks and a steal. Wagner put up 18 and 8 rebounds. Poole chipped in with 13 and played 26 minutes to Matthews’s 17. Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman each had their struggles against a tough defense, but each scored nine points.
Michigan’s record improved to 23-7 (12-5 in the Big Ten) and is moving its way up the seed line. They still have a chance at a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament if they beat Maryland and Penn State beats Nebraska this weekend. Even though Matthews was held scoreless, the Wolverines dribbled out the clock on the road against what was a Kenpom Top 25 team. Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman are rounding into form as their careers wind to an end, Poole has played two really good games in a row, and Moe Wagner is consistently punishing teams with the mismatches he creates. This win against Penn State was very impressive, and Michigan looks like they’ll be a very tough out in March.