Juwan Howard used an analogy to describe Michigan basketball’s 92-87 win at Ohio State on Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio.
The matchup between the third- and fourth-ranked teams in the country, Howard said, was like a “boxing match where one team delivered a blow — and then the other team delivered another blow.”
“It kept going back and forth,” Howard continued, “and in order to sustain it, you had to have mental toughness.”
By the end of Sunday’s contest, there was no doubting the Wolverines’ ability to take a punch — and no doubting their status as one of the elite teams in college basketball this season.
This team is for real. And it has continued to play exceptional basketball, even after the two-week shutdown of the university’s athletic department.
Look at what Michigan (16-1, 11-1 Big Ten) has done in the past week. Over the past seven days, the Wolverines have tallied two road wins over ranked opponents and a home win over another team, Rutgers, in play for the NCAA tournament. A week ago, the Wolverines erased a 12-point halftime deficit in Wisconsin to win their first game back from the layoff. Thursday, they played stifling defense against the Scarlet Knights and withstood a second-half drought in a physical, defensively-minded game.
There wasn’t nearly as much defense in Sunday afternoon’s game at Value City Arena. Led by Duane Washington (30 points) and E.J. Liddell (23 points), Ohio State torched Michigan’s vaunted defense and averaged 1.3 points per possession — easily the highest mark achieved by any team this season.
“There were a lot of times where we could’ve just given up and let them overwhelm us,” said guard Eli Brooks, “but we stayed the course and we came out with a W.”
To win, the Wolverines needed a flawless offensive performance. They needed to weather every big shot that the Buckeyes made. And they needed to get stops late in the second half.
Michigan proved up to the challenge.
The offense carried the Wolverines through a back-and-forth first half, with Michigan hitting 10 of 13 3s in the first 20 minutes. Ohio State chose to double team Hunter Dickinson in the post, and the freshman center made the Buckeyes pay by passing to open teammates.
“When I see a double team come towards me,” Dickinson said, “I have the utmost confidence in whoever’s open to make the shot.”
Chaundee Brown made his first three 3s, Mike Smith and Eli Brooks made all four of their combined attempts, and Isaiah Livers added two. The 3-point barrage gave Michigan a tenuous 45-43 lead at halftime despite the early proficiency of Ohio State’s offense.
And while the Wolverines never completely figured out the Buckeyes’ explosive attack, their own offense was able to keep pace over the course of the game even when the 3s stopped falling.
After hitting the first 3 of the second half, Michigan missed the ensuing nine attempts. The Wolverines were still generating the same open shots they had knocked down earlier, but stopped making them.
Still, the offense forged ahead thanks to Dickinson, who saw fewer double teams in the second half and had more leeway to work one-on-one. And with his height advantage over Ohio State’s frontcourt, Dickinson put together his best half of the season, scoring 16 on 5 of 7 shooting. He drew fouls and made all six free throws. He also grabbed three offensive rebounds that resulted in four points — including a crucial put-back with 1:37 remaining to extend Michigan’s lead to six.
“Hunter’s performance shows to me exactly what I knew from the beginning and why I recruited him,” Howard said. “He’s a competitor. He’s not gonna beg or shy away from competition.”
A big game from Dickinson is nothing new. Sunday’s outburst was his fourth 20-point game of the season.
What was new, however, was the manner in which Michigan beat the Buckeyes. The defense has rarely been stressed, especially during Big Ten play, and Michigan had yet to engage in a true shootout against an opposing team of equal caliber. And by emerging victorious in Sunday’s heavyweight bout, Michigan answered any remaining questions about its status as a legitimate title contender.
“During these games when there are tough stretches when we go through scoring droughts or turn the ball over or the other team gets an offensive rebound, our guys always figure it out and stay the course,” Howard said. “And that’s why I’ve been so impressed with their mental toughness.”