'Smart, composed, tough': No. 3 UM taking on personality of Juwan Howard's playing days

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James Hawkins, The Detroit News
·4 min read
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Feb. 22—Two days before Sunday's marquee matchup, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann noticed something about Michigan.

"Honestly, they very much take on the personality of Coach (Juwan) Howard," Holtmann said. "They play smart, composed, tough, highly competitive. It's the way I remember him playing."

That showed throughout the top-five showdown at Value City Arena, where the No. 3 Wolverines outlasted the No. 4 Buckeyes in a 92-87 shootout that had 18 lead changes, 11 ties and the look and feel of an NCAA Tournament game.

And in a back-and-forth thriller where neither team led by more than six points until the final minute, that was perhaps best on display down the stretch as Michigan executed at a higher level and maintained its composure in an intense rivalry game until the last possession.

"From the start, everybody was locked in and everybody knew what the plan was," said senior guard Eli Brooks, who was one of five Wolverines to score in double figures and finished with 17 points.

"Everybody was confident. Just being able to stay the course shows how calm and how poised people are under pressure and that goes a long way."

As a result, the Wolverines never blinked and were never rattled. Instead, they made critical plays to come out on top and overcome a sizzling offensive performance by the Buckeyes, which shot 53.3% from the field, 50% from 3-point range and 92.3% from the free-throw line.

After Ohio State pulled even at 69 with 6:30 left to play, Michigan responded with a possession where it came away with three offensive rebounds. Senior guard Chaundee Brown grabbed two of them and eventually scored on a putback that gave the Wolverines the lead for good.

Then on Michigan's next possession, freshman center Hunter Dickinson got another second-chance opportunity by corralling his own miss that led to two free throws and a four-point advantage.

"The guys had to really dig deep with the energy and find the energy from somewhere because it was a very hard-fought game, a very physical ballgame," said Howard, who called Brown's effort on the offensive glass "inspiring."

"It was going to come down to which team was going to limit extra possessions and whether it comes from turnovers or from second-chance points."

The Wolverines committed six turnovers in the first half and gave up 10 second-chance points. In the second half, they cut those numbers down to one and zero, respectively.

As Michigan minimized its mistakes, it took advantage of Ohio State's miscues. None was bigger than Justice Sueing's careless pass and giveaway that senior forward Isaiah Livers scooped up and took the other way for an and-1 fast-break layup, pushing Michigan's lead to six with 2:33 to go.

"They were able to get enough stops there when we turned it over. They had a couple offensive rebounds in a key sequence, and I think ultimately that was the difference," Holtmann said. "I think in spots we did play well. We didn't finish the game well enough."

Dickinson, though, played a big role in that. The big man was unfazed by the big stage and rose to the occasion, scoring 10 of Michigan's 15 points over a 5:17 stretch when the Wolverines began to create separation over the last four minutes of the game.

And that doesn't include a key blocked shot he had in the final minute that led to a key bucket from Brooks before the Wolverines made enough clutch free throws to close out the win.

"There were a lot of times where we could've given up and let their run overwhelm us," said Brooks, "but we stayed the course and we came out (on top)."

Sunday's performance provided more proof to Holtmann's pregame observation and was part of a trend since the Wolverines returned from their three-week layoff.

They showed their resolve when they rallied from a 14-point deficit at Wisconsin in their first game in 23 days. They displayed their mental toughness when they weathered a second-half offensive slump against Rutgers. And they countered every jab, punch and haymaker Ohio State threw their way until they were the one left standing.

"It definitely needs to be commended for our guys on how they have kept their poise under tight pressure situations throughout the year," Howard said. "We've been battle-tested with the COVID pause when the university had to take a step back for 14 days. Our guys handled themselves very well.

"During these games when there are tough stretches, when we go through a scoring drought or we may turn the ball over or a team gets an offensive rebound, our guys always figure it out and stay the course."


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins