COLUMBUS — Something had to give.
Entering Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team boasted the nation’s seventh-best defense. Ohio State, meanwhile, owned the third-best offense.
In a battle of Big Ten heavyweights, the Buckeye attack proved potent. Yet, the Wolverine offense matched Ohio State punch for punch, rising to the occasion and securing Michigan (16-1 overall, 11-1 Big Ten) a decisive 92-87 road win over the Buckeyes (18-5, 12-5).
“We’re going to enjoy this victory,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Overall, it was a big production for everyone who played in that game from start to finish, every guy contributed huge, made great plays for us down the stretch.”
One hundred and nine years passed before a top-5 matchup precipitated on the hardwood between the bitter rivals. The first one, though, lived up to its billing.
Both teams came out swinging. Guard Duane Washington notched 10 quick points for Ohio State, showcasing a lethal 3-point stroke. Senior wing Chaundee Brown offered a counter off the bench, draining three 3-pointers and keying an 8-0 run that dug the Wolverines out of an early five point hole.
“I told (senior forward) Isaiah Livers in warmups, I was like, ‘I like these rims, I love these rims,’ ” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Yo, it’s gonna be a good one.’ ”
Brown’s teammates followed suit, with Michigan putting together a scintillating first-half performance, punctuated by a 10-of-13 mark from beyond the arc. On 17 first-half baskets, the Wolverines recorded 12 assists.
“Our guys understand … about just making the easy plays,” Howard said. “And we need more ball and player movement. And get away from the iso-ball. So the different defensive reads, our guys took their time making simple plays.”
Though Michigan’s offense percolated, the Wolverines failed to build an advantage on the scoreboard. Each basket induced an answer from Ohio State at the other end, with 6-foot-7 E.J. Liddell giving Michigan fits. Liddell’s three offensive rebounds contributed to 10 second-chance points in the first half. Heading into the locker room, Michigan clenched a two point lead.
In the opening minutes of the second half, the offense grew cold. Open looks, the likes of which the Wolverines capitalized on during the first twenty minutes, became misses. Ohio State seized a three point lead.
And yet, Michigan clawed back, shifting its attention inside to 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Pulverizing an undersized Buckeye frontcourt, Dickinson scored 16 of his team-high 22 points in the second half.
“That’s what we expect him to do,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “We feel that he can’t be stopped down there. He’s proven himself that he can score against anybody. He did that today.”
The offense, though, by no means became one-dimensional. Five different Wolverines scored in double-figures, with a sixth — sophomore wing Franz Wagner — finishing with nine points. They only committed seven turnovers, with all but one coming before halftime.
“The ball movement was really great today,” Dickinson said. “That’s something I think has been great all year. Such an unselfish team, I think I’ve said it after every game, how unselfish the team played. I think everybody just enjoys playing with one another, so it’s really easy to share the ball.”
A pair of ferocious offensive rebounds by Brown sustained a possession that culminated in his lay-up, giving Michigan a two point lead with 5:45 to play. It was a lead the Wolverines wouldn’t relinquish.
The two teams continued to trade blows in a game marked by its intensity and physicality. The tide seemed to turn definitively in Michigan’s favor when Livers scooped up an errant Ohio State pass. He finished on the other end with an and-one, giving the Wolverines a six-point lead with 2:33 left.
With the clock waning, Livers spiked Ohio State’s inbounds pass back down the court, thwarting the last-ditch comeback attempt. The Buckeye sideline sat in silence while Michigan spilled onto the court and bum-rushed the tunnel, relishing its most-impressive win on a season that seems destined for a special ending.
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