STATE COLLEGE — Some nights, you get a little lucky.
That was the case for the Michigan men’s basketball team Tuesday against Penn State. All season, the Wolverines’ offense has been their saving grace while their defense has slumped. Tuesday, though, Michigan’s offense never got going. The Wolverines (12-9 overall, 6-5 Big Ten) shot just 31.5%, but missed opportunities by the Nittany Lions (9-11, 4-8) handed them an ugly win, 58-57.
“We’re gonna have those games when the shot’s not falling,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “That’s why I think today it was key for us to play stepped up on defense. That’s what we did.”
After trading baskets for the better part of the first 10 minutes, Michigan dug itself into an early hole. Fifth-year guard Eli Brooks and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson both spent stints on the bench midway through the half, and the Wolverines’ offense sputtered as a result. A five minute scoreless stretch allowed Penn State to embark on an 11-0 run, pushing its lead to eight.
The Nittany Lions excelled most with Brooks on the bench, as his replacement — freshman guard Kobe Bufkin — proved to be overmatched on the defensive end. At one point, Penn State scored nine consecutive points with Bufkin as the primary defender.
A timeout with just under four minutes left in the half allowed Michigan to reset, though. Brooks re-entered the game, sparking an 11-0 Wolverines run to end the half tied — with just two of those points coming from the usually instrumental duo of Brooks and Dickinson.
“That was huge,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I think I dove on the floor in a timeout for a loose ball just to show one of our players that every possession matters and we had to win in the muscle areas. Anytime there’s a loose ball on the floor, we got to be the first to hit the floor.
“After that timeout, we got stop after stop after stop. And we also scored after those stops, and then you look up at halftime, we tied (at) 34. But we did it with defense, because defensively in the first 10 minutes in the ballgame, they didn’t feel us.”
The Wolverines’ offensive onslaught, though, did not carry over through halftime. Jones scored the first points of the half over three minutes in, and the Nittany Lions didn’t score until three minutes later when guard Myles Dread canned a 3-pointer.
While Penn State struggled, Michigan failed to take advantage. Missed shots inside prevented the Wolverines from pulling away, as they scored just two more points before that first bucket from the Nittany Lions.
Following Dread’s shot, however, Michigan managed to find its rhythm. Dickinson became his typically dominant self in the post, scoring on the next two possessions, while the Wolverines came away with points on four straight trips to extend the lead to six with 11 minutes to play.
Then came another scoring drought; Michigan went three minutes without a point, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t fully close the gap. Two 3-pointers cut the deficit to two, but missed open looks prevented them from taking the lead.
Down the stretch, Penn State’s inability to convert continued to bail out the Wolverines. Three consecutive Michigan turnovers opened the door for the Nittany Lions, but they continued to miss high-quality shots.
With 3:37 remaining, Penn State was finally able to tie the game on two free throws by forward John Harrar, but Dickinson responded right away, drawing a foul and making two free throws of his own. A missed layup on the other end once again opened the door for the Wolverines, and Brooks knocked down a jumper to put them back up by four.
“(Brooks is) smart, he’s a competitor, and his teammates can trust him,” Howard said. “He’s one of the best leaders that I’ve been around. … As a player, it’s great to have a teammate like him.”
That was all Michigan needed. Even if Michigan’s offense was anemic, Penn State’s was worse, handing the Wolverines a win. And at the end of the day, with the season hanging in the balance, that’s all that matters.