Champaign, Ill. — A season ago, closing the game out at the free-throw line always seemed to lead to some tense moments for Michigan.
The No. 2 Wolverines are hoping that stays in the past.
Michigan handled the late-game hurdles with relative ease on Thursday night, making seven free throws in the final 1:09 to ice the 79-69 win over Illinois at State Farm Center.
“Definitely it was a struggle the past season for us, but at the same time that’s why we have to stay locked in during practice instead of messing around at the free-throw line or whatever the cause may be,” junior guard Zavier Simpson said. “Just stay mentally locked in and imagine us being in a game in a situation like that knocking them down. We just trust everyone to go to the line to knock it down.
“Of course, there are going to be some times where some players have some difficulties, but that’s when our brotherhood steps in. We pick our brother until the next time they’re at the free-throw line and they can knock them both down.”
The Wolverines seemingly had no difficulty against the Illini as they shot 81.8 percent (18-for-22) at the stripe, marking the team’s second-most made free throws and second-best percentage in a game this season. Michigan sank 23 free throws against South Carolina and shot 84.6 percent (11-for-13) against Purdue.
The more impressive part, though, was who was taking and making the free throws down the stretch in the road environment — redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews (4-for-6) and Simpson (2-for-2).
The duo had their fair share of struggles in crunch time last season and were the ones opponents looked to intentionally foul as the team’s two worst free-throw shooters.
With Michigan holding a 10-point lead with 46 seconds to go, that’s exactly what Illinois did by putting the Wolverines in the bonus by wrapping up Matthews.
Matthews misfired on the front-end of the one-and-one but a lane violation on Illinois gave him a second chance. He made the Illini pay, making the first free throw to make it an 11-point game.
Then after Illinois cut it down to single digits, Simpson came through with two free throws — just like he did last week when Penn State tried the “Hack a Simpson” strategy in the final few minutes — to push the lead to 11 with 28 seconds left before Matthews calmly sank two more five seconds later to wrap things up.
In addition to Matthews and Simpson, sophomore guard Jordan Poole, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, junior center Jon Teske and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers were a combined 12-for-14 on free throws.
“That was key for us,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We haven’t had to close out many like that. We’ve had double-digit leads but eight, nine (points) late can go south real quick, especially when they chose to foul immediately.
“Zavier going to the line and knocking them down, Charles making the front-end was really big to do as well. And 18-for-22, we’re going to take that all day, every game this year.”
Livers made his return to the lineup known and was back to form after sitting the past two games due to soreness from back spasms.
After Matthews picked up a foul 36 seconds into the game, Livers came in and immediately made an impact on both ends of the floor. He helped alter shots at the rim and scored seven of Michigan’s first 17 points, highlighted by an offensive rebound and putback where he soared above the rim.
Then in the second half, Livers showed off his explosiveness by blocking a 3-point shot by Illinois’ Kipper Nichols, sprinting down the court to catch an over-the-shoulder outlet pass and throwing down a one-handed dunk.
He finished with nine points on 4-for-8 shooting and five rebounds. More importantly, he had no limitations as he logged 23 minutes, which is around his usual time share.
“We obviously missed him,” Beilein said. “Having Isaiah come over, defend, do different things and just have him coming off the bench is huge for us. Make those points, get the rebounds. The time he blocked the shot, ran out, got the ball (on the break) – we need him on this team. He’s been a real secret to our success.”
Northwestern at Michigan
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 2 Michigan 16-0, 5-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 10-6, 1-4
Outlook: Michigan can set the program record for best start to the season with a victory…The Wolverines escaped with a 62-60 win over the Wildcats in the first meeting this season on Dec. 4…Michigan has won seven straight meetings between the teams at home, with Northwestern’s last win in Ann Arbor coming in 2010.