Sprawled on the floor underneath the basket, sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin should’ve been out of the offensive possession. After his jumper in the lane bounced around the rim and ultimately fell to the floor, Bufkin too fell to the ground looking for a foul call.
But in the absence of a whistle, Bufkin jumped up, grabbed his own rebound off a bounce, and tossed it back up for a put-back layup.
That moment was emblematic of Bufkin’s whole performance. Looking for back-to-back wins for the first time since early January, the Michigan men’s basketball team (13-11 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) dominated Ohio State (11-12, 3-9), 77-69, on the shoulders of Bufkin’s effort.
Despite being the Wolverines’ third-highest scorer behind junior center Hunter Dickinson and freshman wing Jett Howard, Bufkin’s 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists was the difference maker in Sunday afternoon’s tilt. Showcasing all the intangibles, communicating on defense and facilitating game play, Bufkin was irreplaceable against the Buckeyes.
“(The win) means a lot, it means that we’re on the right track hopefully,” Howard said. “That was a really good team. So we just had to come out early to bring that energy.”
From the tipoff, the Wolverines controlled all facets of the game. Draining back-to-back 3-pointers on the first two offensive possessions — one off an assist from Bufkin and one from his own hand. Michigan capitalized on its deep shooting to sustain early offensive momentum. The Wolverines scored from all three levels by finding their consistent scorers — Bufkin, Howard and Dickinson. Michigan quickly gained an early lead that it didn’t relinquish.
On the defensive end, in large part due to a major contribution from Bufkin, the Wolverines prevailed against the third-ranked offense in the country by capitalizing on their defensive advantages. Bufkin proved the most advantageous, contesting shots on the wing and playing elite pick-and-roll defense, keeping Ohio State from easy buckets.
“Kobe is huge to our team’s success,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We’re going to need him and there are going to be times when we go through him. But offensively he’s a guy that has really embraced becoming a two-way player.”
Even when the Buckeyes strung together a run after the under-8 timeout — cutting Michigan’s once 10-point lead to just three — the Wolverines found a way to keep it together, something they haven’t been able to do in the past. On the back of a made layup from Bufkin, Michigan kept hold of its lead. Fending off Ohio State for the remainder of the half, the Wolverines entered the locker room up 41-36.
And the Wolverines’ strong narrative only continued out of the break.
Coming out of halftime, the Buckeyes once again tried to claw their way back into the game. But Bufkin helped silence that hope with a clutch 3-pointer, stemming the bleeding from Ohio State’s quick offensive barrage and once again putting the game just out of reach.
“(Bufkin’s) just someone you love competing with,” graduate guard Joey Baker said. “He’s gonna give it everything he’s got and works his butt off and he’s a really good player. We’re happy to have him on our team and I think he’s just going to continue to get better and better.”
After a single-handed offensive run from Dickinson, the Wolverines built their lead back up to seven points midway through the half. The small lead, boosted by defensive stops, was the final nail in the coffin for the Buckeyes down the stretch. Continuing to go with what it knows, Michigan dug deep on defense and utilized its trio of scorers — Dickinson, Bufkin and Jett — to maintain that small lead.
Continuing their prowess on the defensive end throughout the remainder of the half, the Wolverines held Ohio State to 69 points — under the Buckeyes’ average of 76 points per game. Locking down the paint and contesting every shot from behind the arc, Michigan made scoring increasingly difficult.
And as the clock ticked down on Sunday afternoon, the Wolverines — riding the high of Bufkin’s stellar performance and back-to-back wins for the first time since early January — headed to the locker room.
This time, to celebrate.