As the Michigan men’s basketball team took the floor against No. 3 Virginia Tuesday night, it had an opportunity. An opportunity to prove that the Wolverines’ shaky start to the season isn’t reflective of their team. An opportunity to prove that they could beat a national juggernaut.
But that’s all it was: an opportunity. A possibility that for a moment seemed increasingly likely, but ultimately never came to fruition as Michigan (5-2 overall) fell to the Cavaliers (6-0), 70-68, despite having a chance to tie or even win the game in the final seconds of a hard-fought affair.
“(In) college basketball you have to face tough teams,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You always face good teams, and we faced a good one tonight. Unfortunately, we came up short.”
Junior center Hunter Dickinson led the Wolverines to a dominant offensive showing in the first half. Whether that entailed working Virginia forward Kadin Shedrick with a hook shot or facing up his man before sinking a mid-range jumper, Dickinson gave the Cavalier defense fits. He finished the half with 14 points en route to a game-high 23.
Dickinson also thrived as a distributor when double-teamed, passing to an open shooter or a teammate who could find an open shooter with an extra pass. This ball movement led to seven 3-pointers in the first half for Michigan. Its efficient three point shooting, combined with Dickinson’s dominant presence, gave the Wolverines a 45-34 lead heading into the break.
“I trust my guys when I pass it out,” Dickinson said. “We have guys that can shoot this year, and I think we showed that in the first half.”
But Virginia is ranked third in the nation for a reason, and coming out of the intermission it showed why.
By the time the game reached the under-16 timeout, Michigan’s once-imposing 11-point lead had shrunk to just two. The Cavalier offense sprung to life as they started the half shooting 6-for-7 from the field — each of their starters contributing a score in the run.
The Wolverines, however, seemed determined not to relinquish their lead. Sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin slid into the path of Virginia guard Armaan Franklin early in the half to draw a charge. The play energized Michigan’s defense, forcing the Cavaliers into a 4:59 minute drought from the field.
“Virginia runs a good offense,” Dickinson said. “They’ve got one of the best coaches in the country, and so they’re going to make you be solid and patient on defense, and I think that was something we were lacking before this game. I’m just really proud of the way that my teammates guarded their actions.”
While the defense continued to hold strong, the offense struggled to replicate the success it experienced in the first half. Its inefficiencies, including making just one three-pointer in that span, allowed Virginia to re-take the lead.
With less than four minutes left, though, Dickinson came up big with a putback to tie the game at 65. Seconds later, he asserted his presence on the defensive end, sending a shot from Virginia guard Kihei Clark careening out of bounds to keep the stalemate intact.
Dickinson split a pair from the line to give Michigan the lead with 1:42 left. Cavalier forward Jayden Gardner responded with a mid-range jumper to reclaim the lead with 40 seconds left.
With six seconds left, Franklin went to the free throw line with a chance to ice the game. After Franklin missed both free throws, junior forward Terrence Williams II grabbed the rebound off the second shot and dribbled the ball up the floor. After Williams handed it off to freshman wing Jett Howard, Howard tried to find space before ultimately letting a 3-pointer fly right into the hand of a Virginia defender.
“I saw (Jett) in the corner and tried to do a dribble handoff and let him work,” Williams said. “He’s a great shot maker and we trust him and we trust the shots he takes.”
Jett played well, scoring 15 points and hitting three 3-pointers, but couldn’t connect on his most important shot. In a sense, it captured Michigan’s performance as a whole.
The Wolverines couldn’t walk away with a signature win, but it showed that it can compete with an elite team. And after a subpar opening month, they have something to build off of going forward, when they’ll look to convert opportunities into wins.