On paper, it looked easy.
This game, this opening stretch of games, this early season slate for the No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team. But basketball isn’t played on paper, it’s played on the hardwood — and if that wasn’t already obvious, Ohio reminded the Wolverines of it.
Michigan (4-1 overall) barely escaped Ohio (1-3), 70-66 in overtime, making its previously easy-looking early schedule look increasingly difficult.
“It’s not easy to do,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You could be watching and thinking that it is easy, but once you step foot on that floor you can’t change the channel.”
The win was far from easy for the Wolverines, and they were challenged early and often. Ohio controlled the first 15 minutes of play, though junior center Hunter Dickinson helped tighten things up. He notched 12 points in the final four minutes of the half to spark a 15-4 Michigan run, giving the Wolverines a 33-31 lead entering the second half.
But that momentum failed to carry over after the break. The Bobcats used multiple three-pointers from forward Ben Roderick and fundamental post play to erase Michigan’s second-half six point lead, flipping the script and sprinting out to a 57-50 advantage with just six minutes left in the contest.
That post play was a combination of Ohio’s positioning and ineptitude on the part of the Wolverines. On multiple occasions, Bobcat post players snuck behind the Michigan defense, leading to both easy lay-ins and trips to the charity stripe.
And even when the Wolverines seemed to shore up their defense, Ohio forward Dwight Wilson III — who led the Bobcats with 21 points — didn’t care. Multiple turn-around, high arching mid range jumpers demoralized Michigan whenever it tried to make inroads through much of the second half.
But despite the acrobatic shots and the easy looks, Ohio could never pull away. The game tightened-up as Dickinson — who was often guarding Wilson — made adjustments, securing a key block while down two with two minutes left.
“That turnaround jump shot was giving me a little bit of trouble, I wasn’t expecting that,” Dickinson said. “ … I knew he was going to that at the end of the game, so I was able to time it.”
That improvement paid dividends, and the Wolverines stayed in it. Michigan strung stops together, and a contested layup by sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin tied the game at 61 with a minute left.
And while Bufkin appeared to play hero after he was fouled on a rebound and subsequently drained two free throws with two seconds left to put the Wolverines up 63-61, the Bobcats deployed heroics of their own.
A full court inbound pass clanked off the rim and after some bobbles and a missed lay-in, Ohio forward Dwight Wilson III floated it in at the buzzer to send the game into overtime and continue the chaos.
The absurdity of the play stunned Crisler Center: The Bobcats had just two seconds to advance the ball the length of the court and score, and they somehow converted even after the initial miss by Roderick. As to how the unlikely sequence occurred, Howard credited the gods.
“It’s really true, there are basketball gods,” Howard said. “When things are going well for you in the game, those types of plays will happen.”
Beyond divine intervention, Howard also pointed to rebounding struggles. An inability to consistently grab boards plagued Michigan. It surrendered 19 offensive rebounds, including the pivotal one to Wilson that resulted in his game-tying floater.
In overtime, Michigan finally achieved what it thought it had done near the end of regulation: Put the game away.
Baskets from freshman wing Jett Howard and Dickinson gave the Wolverines breathing room, allowing them to survive an and-one from Wilson and a critical free throw miss by graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn en route to victory.
“I love how our team has been responding through every game that we’ve played,” Juwan said. “ … And we definitely got better today, because we haven’t been through an overtime game like this one before.”
Going in, the game looked easy on paper, but once again it was treacherous. The Wolverines nearly dropped a game against a sub-.500 mid-major team, a loss that would’ve been sure to haunt them for the rest of the season.
But after some late game heroics, that’s a scenario they don’t have to think of.