NEW YORK — A career-high of 26 points along with six rebounds, seven assists and two steals fails to tell the complete story of Dug McDaniel’s Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Neither does the fact that the sophomore guard played practically the entire game, only turned the ball over twice and didn’t foul once in his 37 minutes and 52 seconds on the court. It’s hard to get a full sense of the performance McDaniel delivered for the Michigan men’s basketball team in its 89-73 victory over St. John’s just by looking at any numbers.
But Red Storm coach Rick Pitino might be able to tell the story of McDaniel’s night, or at least he desperately tried to in his postgame press conference.
“What we didn’t expect was to get dominated by their point guard the way he dominated us tonight,” Pitino said in his opening statement. “And that’s a credit to him. He’s a terrific little player and just dominated us.”
“Little” or not, it shouldn’t be a surprise that McDaniel played well. Less than a week ago, he scored a career-high 22 points in the Wolverines’ season opener against UNC Asheville. But just six days and two games later, he topped that performance. He may have had one fewer assist against St. John’s, but he tripled his rebounds in the process.
So Pitino wasn’t surprised that McDaniel was good. He was surprised by just how good he was.
After practically every other question, Pitino brought his answer back to McDaniel, finding more to say every time. When asked whether his team’s defense was prepared for McDaniel, Pitino — who didn’t shy away from criticizing any aspect of his team’s night — said it was more a matter of McDaniel’s performance, implying that there was no way of stopping him.
“It wasn’t so much the defense on him, it’s what he did with the ball,” Pitino explained. “When he penetrated, he found people and we didn’t make the rotations.”
McDaniel sliced and diced his way through the Red Storm. After breezing by whichever defender was unlucky enough to guard him, he frequently met forwards significantly taller than him. But that didn’t matter, because if McDaniel wasn’t going to acrobatically leap and get the ball over them and into the basket — which he did his fair share of times — then he was going to find his open teammates and create chances for them.
Pitino summed up his frustrations pretty clearly:
“Our defense was very poor. But it was poor because of his play.”
With St. John’s in a full-court press, McDaniel’s speed shined. He repeatedly breezed past his defender before making the right read at the right time. On a play early in the first half, he simply ran through the press and passed the ball off to an open teammate. Then, just a few minutes into the second frame, the Wolverines barely got the ball inbounds. But once McDaniel had the ball in his hands, there was no stopping him as he made his way downhill and laid it in with ease.
“I think (tempo is) very important and Dug can be a testament to this because he pushes the tempo,” graduate guard Nimari Burnett said. “I think that’s important for us to establish the flow of the game and get their defense on their heels. And everything opens up behind it.”
With the pace of the game well established, McDaniel was free for takeoff. Despite all of the strengths of his performance, though, McDaniel didn’t have two identical halves. In the first, he was a bit inefficient, including missing both of his attempts from deep; in the second, he was the catalyst of Michigan’s offense.
And with five minutes left to play, McDaniel finally hit from downtown with a stepback 3-pointer. Ninety seconds later, he connected from beyond the arc once more, putting a neat bow on the best performance of his career.
With Michigan, a team projected to finish 11th in the Big Ten, as a slight underdog in the matchup, McDaniel enjoyed the little bit extra his team’s performance meant.
“We don’t pay attention to the outside noise,” McDaniel said. “It’s kind of fun being underdogs, coming in being doubted all the time and proving people wrong. We live for that and to get to do that every night, it’s pretty fun.”
Whether he was hitting teammates with no-look passes or hitting the “night night” celebration after practically putting St. John’s to bed, it was easy to see McDaniel having fun on the court. But it wasn’t easy for the Red Storm to stop him.
Because time and time again Monday night, Dug McDaniel found a way. Or rather, he found nearly every way and left little chance of anyone stopping him.