The Michigan men’s basketball team couldn’t afford to lose to Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers are the doormat of the Big Ten, and while the Wolverines have plenty of opportunities to pick up quadrant 1 wins going forward, a loss on Tuesday — which would’ve been their second in quadrant 3 or worse — would almost certainly have sunk their NCAA Tournament chances.
And for a large stretch of Tuesday’s game, it looked as though that just might happen. Down seven at halftime with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson in foul trouble, the game’s outcome looked to be in doubt, and with it, Michigan’s season.
But with Dickinson back on the floor in the second half, the Wolverines (11-8 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) recovered to top Nebraska (6-16, 0-11), 85-79.
“At this point, we can’t lose any game, pretty much,” Dickinson said. “We have a very small window for error. And so losing to any Big Ten opponent would be a setback at this point.”
While Dickinson’s dominance overwhelmed the Cornhuskers at times after he returned in the second half, Nebrasksa wouldn’t relent. A back-and-forth second half culminated in a tense finish.
With the score tied at 79 and just over a minute remaining, Dickinson found graduate guard DeVante’ Jones cutting along the baseline on a give-and-go for an easy layup. On the ensuing Nebraska possession, a steal by Jones and a Michigan offensive rebound on the other end finally iced the game.
With Dickinson stuck in foul trouble early, the Wolverines had to make do for much of the first half without him. Without his presence on the floor, Michigan’s offense looked out of sorts — as has been the case all season. At one point, it didn’t make a field goal for over four minutes.
“I think if we do a better job of getting to second situations, not being so stagnant,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “Our offense when Hunter is out there is a lot of post-ups. So just getting the second situation ball screens with (freshman forward Moussa Diabate). … If that’s a step up, if that’s a slip down the floor, just getting more movement.”
On the other end of the floor, the Wolverines were porous, offering little resistance to the Cornhuskers’ offense. They constantly allowed guard Bryce McGowens to get open on the perimeter, while guard Alonzo Verge Jr. had little trouble getting into driving lanes. High quality shots were plentiful for Nebraska in the first half, enabling the Cornhuskers to take a 44-37 lead into halftime.
“First half, we had some defensive breakdowns where there were some blow-bys,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We didn’t do a good job of containing the dribble. Guys were making direct drives to the paint, creating scoring opportunities for themselves.”
With Dickinson back to start the second half, Michigan jumped out to a 10-point lead on the back of a 20-3 run that spanned six minutes of game time. Led by 12 points from Dickinson, the Wolverines’ offense started flowing again.
“I think the first half, they were just giving me my right hand,” Dickinson said. “And that’s something that I guess I was like, ‘Alright, they’re gonna give to me, I’m just gonna shoot it.’ I made two in the first half so that gave me a lot of confidence to keep using in the second half.”
However, the stream of Michigan baskets was quickly stemmed. With six minutes remaining, the lead had been erased, and it looked as though the Cornhuskers were ready to pull away after taking a four-point lead. When the ball found guard Keisei Tominaga open behind the 3-point line and his shot connected, it seemed as if Michigan’s comeback effort would come up short.
But on the Wolverines’ next possession, Tominaga was called for both a shooting foul and a technical foul. Brooks and Dickinson knocked down all four free throws to bring Michigan back within three, and the Wolverines capitalized on a quick Cornhusker turnover on the other end to cut the deficit to one.
Three minutes later, Michigan finally regained the lead on a 3-pointer from Brooks, and a fastbreak layup from Jones shortly after put it up by four. Refusing to go down without a fight, Nebraska responded by converting on two consecutive possessions to tie the game, but a game-sealing layup from Jones shut down any momentum the Cornhuskers had gained.
It wasn’t nearly as easy as expected, but no game in the Big Ten really ever is. In the end, the Wolverines escaped a devastating loss, instead finding a narrow win that keeps their season afloat — for now.