With a tip-off that started a little after 1 a.m. EST for the No. 4 Michigan Men’s basketball team, you’d expect energy to possibly be an issue.
But, energy was hardly an issue in the Wolverines (3-1) victory over UNLV (3-1) in their opening game at the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas, NV, 74-61.
Freshman big man Moussa Diabate made his imprint on the game early. The player that epitomizes showtime, and is always a must watch when he steps out onto the court, got his first two points with a transition slam dunk that brought the crowd out of their seats. But, it didn’t end there, Diabate was just getting started. He finished the half with eight points in just seven minutes, all without missing a shot.
“I’m just happy to help my team in whatever way I can,” Diabate said. “We got the (victory) even though it wasn’t the best of wins. I was just happy to help my team.”
Regardless, the game was close and Michigan couldn’t get any real separation from the Rebels. Everytime the Wolverines would string together a couple of made baskets, UNLV would answer with a transition three or a tough bucket.
Michigan found some, fleeting, breathing room found around the under-four timeout. Spurred on by a fifth-year guard Eli Brooks three — his first of four — Michigan’s lead ballooned to 12 and it almost looked like a team starting to pull away.
But, seemingly as soon as the Wolverines settled into that position, a Rebels run commenced. Nine straight points to end the half brought the game within three at the break. And Michigan found itself in a familiar position: A close game that it could have a firmer grasp on.
“I think tonight tested our mental stability,” Brooks said. “They went on a lot of runs and we answered a lot of them. I think just staying the course and having a neck-up mentality helps you win a lot of games in March.”
That mentality also helped them win this game in late November. The second half started immediately with fireworks, and was once again defined by back and forth runs.
A step-back 3-pointer by UNLV guard Bryce Hamilton tied the game at 35. And, on the other end, senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. attacked the paint and dunked over a Rebel player and got the foul. Johns immediately followed that up with a block on the other end, which immediately affected every aspect of the game early on.
Still, though, no separation was to be found. UNLV just kept on making tough shot after tough shot.
At least, not until Diabate stepped back onto the court. Two blocks, a postup and his first jumpshot of the season later, the lead was back up to double digits and Michigan was playing with its highest energy of the night and never looked back.
Throughout the final minutes of the game, the Wolverines started cashing in on each successive trip and the Rebels just looked like a team that ran out of gas. And, with that, Michigan sealed the game.
“I’m impressed with how our team was able to deal with a team that competes as hard as UNLV on the offensive glass, making tough shots and being physical,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “At times we did make mistakes, but we’ll get better. I trust we will.”