Michigan Wolverines laud Spring Grove grad Eli Brooks for raising his game in postseason

JAMES HAWKINS
The Detroit News (TNS)
Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) passes ahead of LSU guard Cameron Thomas, right, during the first half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium Monday, March 22, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS — There was a time on Monday night where things weren't looking too good for the Michigan Wolverines.

LSU's offense came roaring out of the gate. Michigan couldn't buy a shot from 3-point range. Star guard Cameron Thomas seemingly couldn't miss and was singlehandedly outscoring the Wolverines six minutes into the NCAA Tournament second-round matchup.

At multiple points in the first half, it looked like LSU was on the verge of running away from Michigan. At least, that was until Spring Grove High School graduate Eli Brooks yanked on the Tigers' leash and pulled them back.

The senior guard hit shot after shot and made play after play to keep the Wolverines in the chase, finishing with a season-high 21 points and seven assists in the 86-78 victory that sent them to the Sweet 16.

"Eli, he's been hoopin'," senior guard Chaundee Brown said. "I know he puts in the time. He's so quick. He can shoot it from 3, he can go by you. It's like how can you guard him? It's really difficult."

Coming up big when Michigan needed it most: Last week, Brooks said the biggest difference without senior forward Isaiah Livers (foot injury) on the floor is the timely shooting he provides. Against LSU, Brooks filled that void with one key bucket after another.

When LSU opened an early eight-point lead, Brooks buried a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the wing.

During a back-and-forth stretch midway through the opening half, he had a hand in three straight baskets. He penetrated the lane and kicked it out to Brown for an open baseline jumper. He used his shot fake to get free for a mid-range shot. He drained another catch-and-shoot 3 in rhythm.

After LSU took its largest lead at 30-21, Brooks — who coach Juwan Howard called the team's "glue guy" — prevented things from falling apart. He took over at point guard and promptly dished out two assists, freeing up Brown on the wing for a 3-pointer and feeding freshman center Hunter Dickinson in the post to make it a three-point game.

"Everyone has to step up a little bit more. We knew that," Brown said of his and Brooks' roles. "No need to talk about it. Just go out there and do it."

Excelling as a senior: When LSU pushed its lead back to seven within a blink, Brooks countered once again. He banked in a 3-pointer. He drove and delivered a bounce pass to sophomore wing Franz Wagner along the baseline for a reverse layup. He used a shot fake to get by an LSU defender and finish at the rim with a finger roll.

By the time halftime arrived, Brooks put up 13 points — which alone would've ranked as his fourth-highest scoring output of the season — as Michigan managed to take a one-point lead.

Then in second half, Brooks knocked down two game-tying catch-and-shoot 3s before finding Dickinson and Brown on back-to-back possessions during a 9-0 run that put Michigan ahead for good.

"I think all the amount of reps we get in practice and being a senior, you see a lot of things through your time in college," Brooks said when asked about his ability to stay composed and make key plays throughout the game.

"Just being able to be on the court and have those experiences when I was younger I think really helped me out a lot."

Now an integral piece: Unlike those previous trips to the NCAA Tournament, Brooks isn't viewed as a defensive replacement and the last offensive option on the floor anymore. He's an integral piece whose contributions are needed on both ends of the floor, especially on offense with Livers sidelined.

Over the past three games without Livers, Brooks has upped his production. He's averaging 14.7 points, five assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 52.6% from 3-point range (10-for-19), highlighted by a career-high-tying five made 3s against LSU.

"My shot is feeling as good as it has all year," Brooks said. "The coaches have always been on me about being aggressive, taking my shots. He (Howard) is on everybody because we believe everybody's really talented on the team. It's about confidence."

Wolverines confident in Brooks: And the Wolverines are plenty confident that Brooks will continue to step up and deliver.

"Eli has been like this since the last year I started coaching him," Howard said. "He's very underrated in a lot of ways offensively and defensively.

"We know what he provides. ...Watch our games, you understand why we appreciate Eli and what he brings to the table night in and night out."