For the Michigan men’s basketball team, Sunday’s bout with Oakland wasn’t supposed to be close, let alone go into overtime.
The Golden Grizzlies limped into Crisler Center as losers of their first three games, each by double-digits. The matchup with Michigan loomed as their fourth game in five days.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, had unleashed an offensive clinic in its season-opening defeat of Bowling Green, scoring 96 points.
Yet instead of a lopsided win, Michigan found itself staring down the prospect of a stunning upset. Rescued in part by a 19-point performance from freshman center Hunter Dickinson, the Wolverines (2-0) snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, fending off Oakland (0-4), 81-71.
“I learned that our guys did a great job of staying the course,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “How the score was going at times… Our guys would not mentally get down on themselves, or start pointing fingers. They trust the process and stay with it. We had to grind. It was a great game to come out and get a dub versus a team that is very scrappy and competes, a team that’s not afraid.”
For most of the night, Michigan searched for answers on the offensive end.
From the onset, the offense struggled to find its footing, repeatedly flummoxed by Oakland’s zone defense. Facing a starting lineup whose tallest player stood 6-foot-7, the Wolverines made a concerted effort to get the ball inside. Redshirt-senior center Austin Davis was the immediate beneficiary, notching six early points.
The strategy soon fell by the wayside, as Michigan’s ball-handlers proved flustered by the zone. In the absence of graduate transfer Mike Smith — who saw just five minutes of first-half action due to foul trouble — freshman Zeb Jackson and senior Eli Brooks struggled to orchestrate the offense. The Wolverines posted a staggering 15 first-half turnovers, eclipsing the 10 they committed all game against Bowling Green.
“Oakland’s defense bothered us,” Howard said. “There were passes that we were trying to make where we thought we were gonna lob it over the top and they were in that passing lane either deflecting it or getting a steal. They were causing turnovers.”
Frustration over the on-court ineptitude boiled over onto the sideline, with tempers flaring on the Wolverines’ bench late in the first half. Trying to will the Wolverines out of their slump, senior forward Isaiah Livers committed a charge and was subsequently pulled from the game, having picked up his second foul.
On the bench, Livers knocked over a Gatorade cooler. The TV broadcast captured him and Howard shouting.
“He was holding me accountable in the midst of the game,” Livers said. “He was just challenging me. Weirdly enough, that’s how we communicate. We argue in practice, go at it during games, scrimmages.”
Facing a disconcerting 33-31 halftime deficit, Michigan needed to regroup. Early in the second half, it didn’t appear as if they had. Offensive struggles persisted and Oakland unleashed a barrage of four 3-pointers, opening up a six-point lead.
Down five with 10 minutes to play, the Wolverines received a spark from the freshman duo of Dickinson and forward Terrance Williams. The pair dominated Oakland’s undersized interior, combining on an 8-2 run to put Michigan up one and able to finally break the zone.
“I trust them and also we needed a spark,” Howard said. “I knew versus the zone that with the two of them playing, one at the free-throw line and the other on the low block, that we would have some type of continuity where they could work off of each other, which they did a very good job of.”
Thirty minutes into the game, Michigan had managed to crack the zone. Oakland, though, refused to relent, continuing the seesaw affair as the two teams traded baskets, ultimately bringing the game to overtime.
After flirting with danger throughout the game, Michigan at last squashed Oakland’s upset bid. The Wolverines opened the overtime period on a 9-0 run with Dickinson leading the charge, tallying six points on four free-throws and a lay-up.
“That second-half, he wanted that ball and we made an emphasis to get the ball inside to Hunter,” Livers said. “They gotta foul no matter what. And he’s a good free-throw shooter. So, foul him all you want, that’s easy buckets.”
When a 3-pointer from Livers snapped the net to stretch Michigan’s lead to nine with a shade over a minute left to play, the Wolverines were at last able to pull away.
The escape was complete.
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