Returning to Crisler Center for the first time since late November, it was easy to see why the Michigan men’s basketball team wouldn’t need to stress about a non-conference game against Lipscomb. It’d be easier for the Wolverines to dwell on their first Big Ten conference win over Minnesota last week, or to look forward to their road matchup with North Carolina next week.
But the Bisons quickly induced stress, and lots of it.
Saturday night in Ann Arbor, Michigan (7-3 overall) once again narrowly escaped a crushing non-conference loss on the back of a floundering defense. In a game that never truly seemed in hand despite the Wolverines’ offensive success, Michigan found a way to beat Lipscomb (7-5), 83-75.
“You find out a lot about yourself when you play an opponent that you don’t think (is) as good as you but they come out and play their best game ever,” freshman guard Dug McDaniel said. “… So I feel like we’re going to use this game and continue to use the games in the past to keep fueling us up when it comes (to) conference play.”
From the tip, the Wolverines struggled to contain the Bisons’ efficient offensive attack. Lipscomb prides itself on an offense that’s in constant motion, and that was on full display Saturday night. Commanding the floor from the start, the Bisons gained the lead just minutes in and held it for the first seven minutes of the half.
Capitalizing on Michigan’s missed defensive assignments and poor rotations, Lipscomb exploited the slow nature of the Wolverine defense. These same defensive struggles plagued Michigan throughout the entire game, and kept Lipscomb in it until the very end.
“(Guarding their offense) is very tough,” junior guard Terrance Williams II said. “They’re in constant motion. We’re kind of not used to that. … It’s very hard to guard all of that movement. They’re a great offensive team.”
After struggling on both ends of the floor early on, it took until after the under 12 media timeout for the Wolverines to start finding their rhythm offensively. The offensive attack was led by sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin, shooting 8-for-9 en route to a career high 22 points.
While the defense continued to stumble, the offense found efficiency with a cast of bench players. Gaining a lead and continuing to extend it throughout the remainder of the first half — all without a single starter on the floor — Michigan entered the locker room up eight.
Coming out of the half, the Wolverines succumbed to a similar defensive narrative as the first half. And to its detriment down the stretch, Michigan continued to rely solely on its offensive success to propel it forward.
Changing leads four times in the last 10 minutes of play, it was anyone’s game in the second half.
Cutting the Wolverines’ lead to one point midway through the second half, Lipscomb refused to be shut down, continuing its success at the hands of Michigan’s sloppy defensive effort. Guard Will Pruitt was the main culprit, torching the Wolverines for a game-high 27 points.
On top of that, Michigan flipped the script from the first half on the other end of the floor and began to struggle on offense. Without consistent scoring, the Wolverines allowed the game to remain close, eventually giving up the lead.
With just over eight minutes left, a Lipscomb 3-pointer — off a Michigan turnover and missed defensive assignment — obliterated the small lead the Wolverines had worked to reclaim in the first half. Shooting fouls and negligent defensive efforts from both teams kept the back-and-forth nature going down the stretch.
“I feel like we guard (their offense) pretty well until maybe the second half,” Williams said. “Then we started breaking down, but then we came back together for the last four minutes and we got it back together and came up with the win.”
Only after the under four media timeout did Michigan seem to gather itself enough to finish with a win. Stringing together a measly series of defensive stops, a deep 3-pointer from Bufkin and back-to-back jumpers in the paint from freshman guard Dug McDaniel and junior center Hunter Dickinson buoyed the Wolverines just enough. Reduced to fouling to stop the clock, the Bisons gave the Wolverines ample free-throw attempts to extend their lead.
After barely pulling away down the stretch, Michigan coach Juwan Howard summed up his team’s effort best.
“We got it done when we had to.”
Finding just enough success on the offensive end despite an inefficient defense, the Wolverines barely avoided a crushing non-conference loss once again. And with it, they added even more to their list of issues to improve upon.