STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For the better part of 20 minutes Tuesday, the Michigan basketball season tipped toward irrelevancy with more than a month remaining.
The maddeningly inconsistent Wolverines had traveled to a largely vacant Bryce Jordan Center for a late-night matchup with one of the lesser teams in the Big Ten and mustered the concentration levels of students the night before spring break.
Never mind that coach Juwan Howard’s team was stuck at .500 in league play and desperate for wins of any kind amid a brutal stretch of the schedule. Never mind that a team ranked in the top five of most preseason polls was inching closer to missing the NCAA tournament altogether.
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None of that seemed to matter for Michigan as Penn State sliced through its defense with ease and shot 57.7% in the first half. At one juncture, the Nittany Lions built an 11-point lead that made a sparse crowd feel somewhat formidable.
"I talked about at halftime that it’s too easy," Howard said. "Everything they’re getting is too easy. We have to make them work for every bucket, but they don’t feel us."
The message resonated and injected some much-needed life into a downtrodden defense coming off more than a week of disappointing malaise. The Wolverines emerged from the locker room brimming with physicality and hustle that might well have saved their season. A first-half shredding gave way to an emboldened, impassioned defensive effort limiting Penn State to 24.1% shooting (7-for-29) and preserved a game Howard’s team needed to win. The 58-57 victory kept hopes of an NCAA tournament berth alive.
Center Hunter Dickinson led Michigan with 19 points and 15 rebounds (seven offensive) but shot just 6-for-20 from the field and was visibly frustrated. Guard Eli Brooks chipped in 16 as the only other Wolverine in double figures.
So much of the first half resembled the meek and disconnected defensive efforts Michigan displayed over the last three games when Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue all scored a minimum of 79 points while shooting at least 50.8% from the field. When Howard called a timeout with 3:55 remaining and his team trailing by double digits, the Nittany Lions were still shooting 68.2% overall and 50% from beyond the arc on eight attempts.
"We allowed their shooters to get open looks, too many paint touches," Howard said. "I looked back to some of the first-half stats. They scored 18 points in the paint. They also shot the ball extremely well from the outside and made four 3s. And they shot 57% in the first half."
Such porousness was personified by freshman guard Kobe Bufkin, who allowed Sam Sessoms to make three consecutive layups on nearly identical plays in which the Penn State guard swooped across the lane from left to right. After Sessoms' third basket in a span of 97 seconds, Howard immediately pointed to the bench so Brooks could reenter the game.
The substitution capped an almost comedic sequence that underscored Michigan’s lack of depth at the guard position. Freshman point guard Frankie Collins had been yanked from the game following an ugly turnover and ill-advised 3-pointer that clanged off the backboard, at which point Howard inserted Bufkin instead. But Bufkin proved too much of a defensive liability and lasted fewer than four minutes before Howard pulled him, too. Brooks and DeVante’ Jones remain the only trustworthy guards in Howard’s rotation.
The only redeeming factor for U-M was an excellent response to Howard’s timeout late in the first half, at which point Penn State led by 11. Fueled by a pair of 3-pointers from Caleb Houstan and Brandon Johns Jr., the Wolverines closed the half on an 11-0 run to draw level at the break. The flurry was punctuated by a buzzer-beating layup from Johns after a pretty drop-off pass from Jones that swung momentum back toward the visitors.
"That was huge," Howard said. "I think I dove on the floor during a timeout for a loose ball just to show one of our players that every possession matters. We have to win it in the muscle areas. Any time there’s a loose ball on the floor, we’ve got to be the first to hit the floor. And I think after that timeout, we got stop after stop after stop. And we also scored after those stops."
The defense resurfaced in the early portion of the second half as Howard’s team held the Nittany Lions without a basket for the first six minutes. Heightened focus and aggressiveness from the Wolverines dragged what had been a well-oiled Penn State offense into the muck. The sets were disjointed, the shot selection was poor and Sessoms had a shot emphatically blocked by Dickinson on the same type of layup he scored in the first half.
Michigan’s defensive awakening was coupled with PSU regressing to the norm after an opening 20 minutes peppered with fadeaway or step-back mid-range jumpers from Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy that dripped with difficulty. When those same types of shots bounced awry in the second half, the Nittany Lions began settling for questionable 3-pointers instead.
Four times Penn State had an opportunity to tie the game at 46 with fewer than 10 minutes remaining and four times the offense was rebuffed. Dickinson blocked Sessoms for a second time. Power forward Jevonnie Scott had two soft hooks spin off the cylinder. A mid-range jumper from Sessoms died on the back of the rim when a softer bounce might have seen it fall through the net.
All of the bounces that went Penn State's way in the first half began to carom the other way as Michigan's pressure defense intensified.
The miniature drought from PSU offered enough time for the Wolverines to nose in front and, in the final minutes, seal a win when Dickinson made two free throws and Brooks made four. A clutch jumper from Brooks with 2:29 remaining felt like a dagger when it gave U-M a two-possession lead.
Such a narrow advantage felt much larger after Michigan's game-saving defensive revival.
"If the shots aren’t falling, then you’ve got to rely on your defense," Jones said. "That was big for us today."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball survives slugfest with Penn State, 58-57