Ann Arbor — Michigan’s Franz Wagner needed only two words to sum up the lift Austin Davis provided.
In a game where the misses piled up and Michigan shot a season-low 33.3 percent at Crisler Center, Davis was the lone Wolverine who made all his attempts and finished with a career-high 11 points off the bench in Tuesday’s 61-58 loss to Ohio State.
“Can't say it enough…dude is always ready,” Wagner said. “He doesn't get a bunch of minutes, and then just comes in and does his job really well.”
Davis, a redshirt junior center, was efficient and effective in his 14 minutes of action, with most of his playing time coming alongside senior center Jon Teske in a two-big lineup.
In the first half, Teske fired a pass from the top of the key to Davis in the post, which resulted in a layup and foul for a three-point play. Davis later drew a foul on Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson and knocked down two free throws, tallying five points in five minutes at the break.
During the back-and-forth second half that featured 16 lead changes, Davis came up huge and delivered three straight baskets for Michigan in the final six minutes.
He cleaned up a missed running hook shot by senior guard Zavier Simpson for a three-point lead with 5:36 to play. He corralled a missed 3-pointer by junior guard Eli Brooks and scored on an offensive putback to tie with 4:28 remaining. And he scored at the rim off play-and-roll action with Simpson to give Michigan a two-point advantage at the 2:42 mark.
“Austin played great,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He gave us some big minutes in that (two-big) lineup. He finished at the basket pretty strong. He also got an offensive rebound and putback, and we really needed that bucket because it kept going back and forth. We did not get hurt at all with that big lineup.”
Howard said he put Davis at the five and Teske at the four for stretches because he wanted “to put more strength” on the floor against Wesson and Kyle Young, whom Howard thought the Wolverines had trouble guarding at times.
That left Davis with the challenge of defending Wesson, Ohio State’s top player and one of the Big Ten’s top big men.
“Austin is a tough-nosed competitor that does a really good job of using his body,” Howard said. “He’s not afraid of contact, loves the contact. He welcomes the contact not just tonight but in a lot of the games that we've played throughout the year. He's always accepted the challenge when it came to any physical bigs on the other end.”
Granted, there were times when Wesson got the better of Davis. In the first half, Davis was slow to recover on a pick-and-pop play that led to Wesson splashing a clean look from deep. Then late in the second half, Wesson faced up and drove into Davis’ chest for a layup and foul right after Davis’ final basket.
But Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann credited Davis for making things tough late in the game on Wesson, who finished with 23 points but scored only once in the final eight minutes.
“It's one of the biggest teams we've seen all year,” Holtmann said. “They're just men, so that was difficult for us at times to score around the rim. It really was.”
For Davis, it was arguably one of the biggest outings of his career, which has been riddled with sporadic playing time. He went 4-for-4 from the field. He made all three of his free-throw attempts. He grabbed three rebounds — two resulted in offensive putbacks — and drew three fouls.
It was also the second straight game where Davis provided a much-needed boost off the bench, following his eight-point, three-rebound performance in the win against Rutgers, and was the latest example of a reserve heeding Howard’s words of staying ready.
"It's just keeping your head in there, always being prepared, always knowing everything on the scouting report, always preparing in practice beforehand like you're going to play 35 minutes,” said Davis, who is 9-for-9 from the field over the last three games.
“You just know that you can be thrown in there any minute. And if you are, you need to go out there and perform to the best of your ability and help your team win and do it for your brothers.”
Davis admitted it hasn’t always been easy. Last season, he wasn’t able to lock down the backup five role and carve out a consistent role. As a result, he saw his playing time become dependent on matchups.
A similar trend has unfolded this season. Davis never saw the floor in seven games and has played less than 10 minutes in seven of his 15 appearances, but he hasn’t let it sour his outlook.
"Absolutely it can be difficult at times,” Davis said, “but when you keep in mind that you're doing it for your teammates, you're doing it for your brothers, I really don't think that it should that difficult of a thing.”
According to Wagner, Michigan’s inability to capitalize on Davis’ big night made Tuesday’s setback even tougher to swallow.
“It hurts that we didn't reward him for that,” Wagner said.