After 12 days off, the No. 19 Michigan men’s basketball team took the floor on Christmas Day to face off against Nebraska.
The Wolverines barely looked like they had lost a step.
Led by five double digit scorers and a solid defensive showing, Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s squad notched a 80-69 win to push their Big Ten record to 2-0 on the year (7-0 overall). Sophomore wing Franz Wagner proved to be Michigan’s go-to scorer, notching a season-high of 20 points. After saying that he needed to be more aggressive in his offensive approach during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Wagner looked more confident than ever, scoring 11 points in the first half alone and routinely driving his way to the rim off the dribble for easy looks inside.
“(Franz makes) winning plays on the offensive and defensive end,” Howard said. “Tonight he made some really good plays and knocked down some shots.”
While the Wolverines entered the second half with a 36-34, it had left many points on the board after missing good open looks from deep, shooting just 4-for-17. The second half, though, was a different story. Senior forward Isaiah Livers, who scored 17 points but shot just 0-for-4 from three in the first half, knocked down his first two triples after halftime, and later found Wagner on a backdoor cut to give his team a 48-41 edge with 16 minutes remaining. After scoring on its first eight offensive trips, Michigan had a vice grip on the game’s momentum.
“I laughed at halftime, and I told the guys, ‘Hey, they’re gonna fall. Keep shooting them,’ ” Howard said. “They were great open looks. Sure enough in the second half — those same shots — they started making them.”
As the second half progressed, the Cornhuskers slowly chipped away at the Wolverines’ lead, running a 2-3 zone and cutting the lead to four points with 6:20 left. However, Michigan responded.
A triple from graduate transfer guard Mike Smith extended the lead back to seven. Smith kept the momentum going when the ball got back to the other end of the court, stealing and feeding it back to senior guard Eli Brooks who gave the Wolverines a nine-point advantage late. Smith proved to be an effective conductor all night long, scoring 10 points and notching six assists.
“This is not Mike’s first rodeo being a senior,“ Howard said. “It’s great for Mike to have the poise, and more importantly the confidence, to deliver when his team needed it.”
On the defensive end, Michigan struggled to contain Nebraska’s Teddy Allen, who scored 21 points in the first half alone and almost single-handedly kept the Cornhuskers in the game with a healthy dose of jumpers. In the second half, though, Allen drew senior forward Chaundee Brown Jr. as an assignment and managed just four points on just five shot attempts. During a timeout, Brown approached Howard and told him he wanted to be matched up against Allen.
“It just shows the type of character that he has to want to take the challenge and want to guard the other team’s best player,” Howard said. “He did a phenomenal job of making everything tough for (Allen).”
Nebraska had an even tougher time trying to score inside against freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who finished with a double double, scoring 13 points and hauling in a career-high 15 rebounds. In his second career start, Dickinson made the paint a nearly impenetrable fortress, notching two blocks and affecting an array of other shots with his 7-foot-1 frame.
“I was just trying to affect the game in as many ways as I can to help my teammates,” Dickinson said. “I know for me, being a big man, I gotta help out my teammates when they get beat. Coach (Howard) always tells me to close hard and that leads to them getting beat a bit. So my teammates need to know that I have their back.”
On the offensive side of the floor, Dickinson scored just four points in the first half, but he drew a series of double teams and was able to set his teammates up on feeds out of the post.
“That’s a perk of having a very good post player like that,” Wagner said. “The other team’s gotta double him, and I think Hunter did a good job of finding the open guy and making easy passes that lead to open shots for other guys.”
After halftime, Michigan’s defense left little breathing room for Nebraska to string together a run. The Cornhuskers failed to score a point inside the arc until the 8:46 minute mark of the second half, with solid defensive rotations and Dickinson’s length making the process of finding easy buckets an arduous task.
It was tense at times, but ultimately Michigan left Lincoln, Neb. with a win. And on Christmas Day, that’s the best gift the Wolverines could ask for.