Sunday’s clash between Michigan and Ohio State, the first ever top-five match-up between the historic rivals, did not disappoint. The game, which featured an intensity level usually reserved for March, was a seesaw affair of runs and counter-runs, a game in which neither team was able to distance itself by more than six points until the game’s final minute. Michigan ultimately prevailed, on the strength of scintillating three-point shooting early and on the back of its big freshman late, but the victory was anything but easy.
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard likened the game to a boxing match, and if you watched, you’d know the analogy was an apt one. In a dogfight of a game, the teams traded blows all afternoon in a back-and-forth affair that featured 18 lead changes and 11 ties before the Wolverines ultimately wrested control in the game’s final minutes.
With the victory, Michigan ran its record to 16-1 (11-1 in conference) and maintained its position atop the Big Ten standings.
Michigan succeeded Sunday in much the same way it’s succeeded most of the year: Behind the steady hand of point guard Mike Smith and a balanced scoring attack. The Wolverines were led by freshman Hunter Dickinson, who tallied 22 points, including 16 in the second decisive half, but also received double-digit scoring efforts from Eli Brooks (17), Chaundee Brown (15), Isaiah Livers (12) and the aforementioned Smith (11). Franz Wagner was a point away from being the sixth Wolverine to score in double-digits, finishing with nine points to go along with six rebounds.
While Michigan relied on a balanced attack, the Buckeyes were led by stars Duane Washington Jr. and EJ Liddell, who combined for 53 points on 58% shooting. Liddell played tough inside, but more importantly for the Buckeyes, proved to be a difficult match-up for Dickinson and Michigan outside, where the sophomore hit three of five three-pointers. Washington, for his part, proved to be a difficult match-up in general. Whether it was three-point daggers or forays into the paint, the Grand Rapids native hit big shot after big shot, keeping the Buckeyes in the game and finishing with a career high 30 points.
In the end, however, the pair’s performance wasn’t quite enough.
When you play this Michigan team, you have to pick your poison. In the first half, Ohio State swarmed Dickinson whenever he saw the ball. As a result, Dickinson was largely held in check, but the attention he garnered allowed his teammates to get open looks from deep. Michigan took advantage of those open looks, converting ten of 13 first half three-pointers (good for a blistering 77% from beyond the arc). Ohio State adjusted in the second half by throwing fewer bodies at Dickinson and paying more attention to the three-point line. The strategy helped cool off Michigan’s three-point shooters, but facing fewer double teams, Dickinson was dominant down the stretch, scoring 16 second half points and leading Michigan’s charge to the finish line.
After the game, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann acknowledged the difficulties his Buckeyes had containing Dickinson, saying, “I thought his (Dickinson) length and size bothered us.” Holtmann can find solace in knowing that his was not the first team to have difficulty containing the seven-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
While Dickinson’s performance down the stretch was certainly integral to Michigan’s victory, if there was an unsung hero for Michigan, it was Brown. Brown not only scored 15 points for the Wolverines, highlighted by three-of-four shooting from beyond the arc, but a pair of offensive rebounds by Brown near the 6:00 mark of the second half were critical to Michigan’s decisive game-ending run.
Sunday’s game was the only scheduled match-up between Michigan and Ohio State this year, but it may not be the only time the rivals play. Because if Sunday’s game proved anything, it proved that the accolades being heaped on Michigan and Ohio State, both of which are currently projected as a top seeds in next month’s NCAA tournament, are well-deserved. And the way each team is playing, the two could very well end up playing long enough in March to meet again.