After the Michigan men’s basketball team came out flat against an unheralded Minnesota team last week, Crisler Center looked like it might been experiencing déjà vu Wednesday night as the Wolverines hosted Rutgers — a team still looking for its first conference win.
In the first half, Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) did its best to allow the Scarlet Knights (0-8, 6-15) to forget they were riding a seven-game losing streak into Ann Arbor — including five losses by more than 20 points.
The Wolverines started the game shooting 5-for-20 from the field and trailed the Big Ten’s second-worst team 16-12 with eight minutes left in the first half.
Enter Aubrey Dawkins.
After coming off the bench with just under 12 minutes left in the frame, the sophomore forward wasted little time in making his presence felt.
Following a string of three straight misses from junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., Dawkins hit on his first try, knocking down a 3-point attempt from the corner.
Thirty seconds later, Dawkins used a pick to lose his man at the top of the key. He cut toward the hoop and met eyes with Walton, who had the ball just beyond the arc. Walton threw a bullet to Dawkins, and the 6-foot-6 sophomore caught it and threw down a dunk, swinging his legs beneath him for a split second in ‘How ya like me now?’ fashion.
Less than a minute later, after junior forward Mark Donnal blocked a Rutgers shot attempt on one end, it was Dawkins again on the other end, hitting another 3 to tie the game at 20.
Two minutes. Three shots. Nine points.
Michigan took the lead on its next possession and never looked back, ultimately picking up a 68-57 win.
“(I’m) just trying to provide energy in whatever way I can,” Dawkins said. “If it’s making shots, if it’s rebounding, if it’s making the right pass — whatever it is — just trying to give the game a different kind of vibe, a different energy. That’s what I pride my game on right now, just trying to make something happen.”
Dawkins’ electric entrance provided the spark Michigan needed to flip the switch. After missing his first three tries from deep, junior forward Zak Irvin hit from beyond the arc with just more than four minutes left and hit two free throws late to salvage an otherwise forgetful first half and help send the Wolverines into the locker room with a 34-27 lead at the break.
“It was huge for us, Aubrey being able to do that,” Irvin said. “For that just to happen right then and there, that got us right back on track, because we had that sluggish start.”
In the second half, Dawkins came close to changing the energy in a big way again. With Michigan up nine, Dawkins streaked through the paint after catching a Walton pass from the baseline. Two Rutgers players split as Dawkins charged toward the basket, elevated and attempted to throw down a one-handed, jaw-dropping dunk. But the ball caught too much of the back of the rim and ricocheted past half court in the opposite direction.
“I jumped too far,” Dawkins said of the dunk. “I thought the guy in the paint was going to jump, but he didn’t jump, so I was expecting the contact, but it wasn’t there, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m too far away so now I can’t land it, so I just gotta throw it and hope it goes through.’ Blake Griffin-esque. But it didn’t go in.”
Despite the blooper-reel miss, he didn’t hesitate to fire from the corner when he had an open look on the next trip down the court, hitting his third 3 of the night.
Dawkins finished 4-for-6 from the field for 11 points — the margin of Michigan’s win — and brought back memories of his 31-point performance against the Scarlet Knights last season for Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan.
“He did that last year against us. He makes some shots — you know he’s long,” Jordan said. “When you close out on Aubrey Dawkins, with his athleticism and his length, it’s not bothering his shot. He moves well, he finds an open spot on the floor … so he knows where his shot’s going to come from. They find him and that’s their scheme.”