It takes offensive firepower to best the fifth-ranked offense in the NCAA.
And just one game removed from a lackluster showing in the Big Ten Tournament, it was unclear if the Michigan men’s basketball team would be able to bring the heat.
While the Wolverines (18-15 overall) struggled to conjure up that firepower in the first half, a surge at the start of the second frame fueled them past Toledo (27-8), 90-80, in the first round of the NIT. Behind three consecutive 3-pointers in the opening two minutes of the second half, Michigan demonstrated its determined mindset and well-rounded scoring ability, using those attributes to take control and never look back.
“We stuck together and ultimately didn’t reach our goals across the board this season,” graduate guard Joey Baker said. “But as a unit we decided that we’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna fight and we’re gonna play to win. And that’s what we did — especially in the second half.”
Although that winning mindset was front and center in the final 20 minutes of play, it wasn’t as clear during the first half, and it played a factor in the Wolverines’ 42-40 deficit entering halftime.
The Rockets came out of the gate with a hot hand and a sense of urgency. It quickly became apparent that the matchup would be an offensive battle, and Toledo struck first, starting the game shooting 7-for-9 from the floor. But Michigan countered the Rockets’ fireworks, going 6-for-8 to keep pace with Toledo’s fast, efficient offense.
However, as the Rockets began to lose steam, the Wolverines’ lack of energy materialized and gave them an easy path to recover. Sloppy passes enabled the Rockets to blast off once again, and lethargic rebounding facilitated second-chance opportunities. Michigan did enough to keep the game tight, but the carelessness prevented the Wolverines from surging ahead — something that seemed feasible as Toledo went on a 1-for-12 stretch midway through the half.
Although Michigan never took control throughout the first 20 minutes, it found more success by turning to junior center Hunter Dickinson. With a six-inch advantage over the Rockets’ tallest starter, Dickinson’s presence in the paint gave the Wolverines an edge. But he only had 10 points to show for that advantage down low in the first frame.
“We realized that we were playing a really talented team and that if we didn’t lock in and buckle up on defense that we were going to lose, and we didn’t want to go out like that,” Baker said. “It was kind of just an understood thing as a team. We were gonna go out there and we’re gonna hoop.”
That’s exactly what Michigan did coming out of halftime.
Although the Wolverines didn’t immediately capitalize on Dickinson’s vertical advantage in the second half, they found key production from beyond the arc. Fueled by the three consecutive triples, Michigan started the second half on an 11-0 run.
Then Dickinson fully got going. On back-to-back possessions, freshman guard Dug McDaniel fed the ball to a cutting Dickinson, who either scored or drew the foul.
“(I) knew that my guys were gonna look for me,” Dickinson said. “They did, they found me in great positions to score on a lot of plays. But I knew they were probably going to double team me as well, and so I tried to make the right play and find my teammates that were open.”
The double threat of Dickinson in the paint and hot-handed guards around him proved to be just what Michigan needed. As the Wolverines consistently connected from deep in the second half, they forced Toledo to choose between leaving open looks for shooters or covering Dickinson down low.
Regardless of the Rockets’ choice, Michigan made them pay.
And as the Wolverines began to string together stops on the defensive end, they ballooned a comfortable lead to a three-possession game with five minutes left — something they struggled to do for the majority of the contest and season at large.
When Michigan needed to, it got the necessary stops. Although its shooting boom was counteracted partially by similar issues the Wolverines faced in the first half — namely lethargic rebounding — they tightened up on the defensive glass down the stretch.
With that development and its offense continuing to thrive, Michigan remained in control. Shooting 7-for-11 from three in the second half, the Wolverines sustained their newfound offensive firepower, And double-digit scoring from four starters only expanded their arsenal.
The Rockets may be known for their prolific scoring, but on Tuesday it was Michigan’s offense that took flight. And in an offense-powered contest, that was exactly what it took to win.