After going undefeated in non-conference play, the Michigan men’s basketball team knew that a grueling, competitive conference slate loomed on the horizon.
In their Big Ten opener, the Wolverines survived their first test.
On Sunday afternoon, Michigan (6-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten), hung on late to fend off upset-minded Penn State (3-2, 0-1), 62-58, behind a game-high 20 points from freshman center Hunter Dickinson.
“Our team did a phenomenal job of competing as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I loved how when they made a run in the second half … we kept our mindset to a point where we knew the run was gonna happen. Stayed together. Got the stops that we needed, got the rebounds that we needed. And then went on the other end, had to make free throws or make winning plays.”
Michigan’s defense led the way from the tip. Though suspect at times through the first five games, the defense continuously forced late shot clock situations and contested virtually every look. The Wolverines limited the Nittany Lions to 30% shooting from the field and held their leading scorer, forward Seth Lundy, scoreless in the first half.
“(It was) just knowing the scouting report and executing,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “If you contest every shot, you can look at the numbers and look at the percentages. That’s something that we preach in our defense, try to contest every single shot.”
While the defense excelled, the offense struggled to find its footing, hampered by Penn State’s aggressive trap. With points hard to come by, Michigan looked to Dickinson. Drawing his first career start in the absence of senior center Austin Davis, Dickinson keyed a personal 7-0 scoring run to ignite the offense.
“He trusts me and I trust him,” Howard said of Dickinson. “His teammates trust him. He trusts his teammates. But I’m not gonna BS you, it’s great to see a lot of the work that he’s putting in, it’s now coming to fruition.”
A 3-point barrage before the first-half buzzer opened up a 15-point advantage and sent Michigan into the locker room up nine. Still, the Wolverines couldn’t pull away. Penn State opened up the second half with a run of their own, a 12-2 spurt in which it downed its first four shots to take its first lead of the game 23 minutes in.
A slugfest unfolded, with the two teams trading defensive stops. Even with Dickinson on the court, the offense sputtered at times. Senior forward Isaiah Livers, who entered the game as Michigan’s leading scorer, shot just 1-of-7 for 10 points. Senior forward Chaundee Brown, the third-highest scorer at 12 points per game, failed to score.
As it did during the first half, the defense rose to the occasion. Yet after going over six minutes without a field goal, the Nittany Lions snapped that cold spell in emphatic fashion. A dribble-drive by Sam Sessoms ended in a 3-point play, putting Penn State up two with under three minutes to play.
Staring down the prospect of a disheartening defeat, Dickinson came to Michigan’s aid.
He slammed home a dunk off a feed from graduate transfer guard Mike Smith to tie the game. After a Penn State turnover, the Wolverines returned to Dickinson, who finished at the rim to put Michigan up for good with 1:21 to play.
“(Smith)’s a pretty good player, so when he comes off the ball screen, he attracts a lot of attention because he’s so good,” Dickinson said. “Me rolling, we both put a lot of pressure on the defense. And so they basically have to pick their poison with either me or him.”
With the Wolverines nursing a precarious 2-point advantage, the Nittany Lions had a golden chance to tie or take the lead, but Sessoms’s lay-up rolled off the rim after suffocating defense by Brooks.
“It’s awesome that we’ve had a chance to experience it this year and have a situation where you’re down and gonna have to fight back to win games,” Howard said. “You’re gonna have those throughout the year. This is gonna be one of many. And when you talk about the Big Ten season, I’m speaking one of many.”
Ultimately, Michigan will face far stiffer competition in the Big Ten than Penn State. Despite the scare, though, the team will happily take the 1-0 start to conference play.
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