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'No lead is safe': Michigan survives Big Ten opener vs. Penn State after squandering early advantage

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Nothing is going to come easy in the Big Ten.

The Wolverines found that out on Sunday when a game that appeared to be on the verge of a blowout turned into a grind-it-out dogfight that went down to the wire.

After squandering a 15-point first-half lead, Michigan used a late defensive stand and another stellar outing from freshman Hunter Dickinson to pull out a 62-58 victory over Penn State in the Big Ten opener at Crisler Center.

"That's a Big Ten basketball game right there,” fifth-year senior center Austin Davis said. “You're going to have a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity. But the teams that are going to be successful have to find a way to push through it and come together through it. We obviously had some things that didn't go our way, but we didn't let it separate us or get us down too bad.”

Michigan forward Brandon Johns Jr. (23) looks to the basket with Penn State forward John Harrar (21) defending in the first half.

Dickinson had a season-high 20 points and made the game-tying and game-winning baskets in the final 2:08. He added seven rebounds, three blocked shots and finished 9-for-14 from the field in his first career start in place of Davis, who is out indefinitely with a right foot injury.

Senior guard Eli Brooks added 12 points and came up with a critical defensive stop on Penn State’s final possession for Michigan (6-0, 1-0 Big Ten), which committed 16 turnovers and finished 17-for-20 from the free-throw line to help overcome rough second-half shooting. Senior forward Isaiah Livers added 10 points and made two free throws in the closing seconds to seal the victory.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 62, Penn State 58

Izaiah Brockington had 14 points and Myreon Jones and Sam Sessoms scored 10 apiece for Penn State (3-2, 0-1), which shot 30.8% from the field (20-for-65), had 13 offensive rebounds and attempted 20 more shots than Michigan.

After building a 15-point lead in the first half, Michigan saw its advantage disappear quickly. Following a 6-0 run into halftime, Penn State picked up where it left off and opened the second half with a 12-2 spurt to take a 39-38 lead on a John Harrar layup with 16:36 to play.

During the run, the Wolverines had a hard time getting anything going offensively and struggled to clean up the defensive glass, as the Nittany Lions used a pair of 3-pointers and second-chance baskets to take their first lead of the game.

"As you can see in this league, no lead is safe,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “The times when we weren't there to contest their shots, they finished. When they shot balls from the outside, they had guys running in and got offensive rebound after offensive rebound. That's what got them back into the game.

“They were playing harder than us. I told our guys this is going to be one of these grit-and-grind type games where we've got to not allow them to be tougher than us and beat us to all the energy plays — loose balls, offensive rebounds and protecting the paint.”

Dickinson quelled the momentum with a three-point play. That set the stage for a back-and-forth stretch where Penn State regained the lead twice, the last time on a three-point play from Brockington that put the Nittany Lions up, 49-48, at the 10:17 mark.

As fouls, missed shots and turnovers added up, Michigan relied on free throws as its primary source of offense. The Wolverines pulled back ahead on a pair from Livers to go back on top, 50-49, and extended the lead to 56-50 on two more free throws from sophomore wing Franz Wanger before the Nittany Lions snapped out of a shooting slump.

A 3-pointer from Jones ended a six-minute field-goal drought and sparked an 8-0 flurry that gave Penn State a 58-56 edge with 2:53 to go. It was short-lived as Michigan turned to Dickinson and the big man delivered.

The Wolverines fed Dickinson in the post on back-to-back possessions, with grad transfer guard Mike Smith setting him up for a dunk to tie it and another close-range basket for a 60-58 advantage with 1:21 remaining.

"Mike is a pretty good player so when he comes off the ball screen, he attracts a lot of attention because he's so good,” Dickinson said. “Me rolling, we both put a lot of pressure on the defense, so they basically have to pick their poison with either me or him. He's really good at making the right play so I owe it all to him for making those plays for me.”

But after Michigan came up empty on its next possession and freshman forward Terrance Williams II missed two free throws, Penn State had the ball with 18 seconds left and a chance to go for the win. That’s when Brooks played superb one-on-one defense, blanketed Sessoms on a drive and forced a missed shot at the basket.

"We knew that they were going to go through Sam and try to get downhill to get a layup,” Brooks said. “We just emphasized not trying to foul, staying vertical and making his score over someone. That was the game plan coming in — make them earn every single shot, make them shoot over contested bodies and not foul.”

Livers corralled the rebound and made two free throws with 5 seconds left to put the game away as Michigan won its sixth straight Big Ten opener at home.

“I loved how when they made a run in the second half, we kept our mindset to a point where we knew that the run was going to happen,” Howard said. “We stayed together, got the stops that we needed, got the rebounds that we needed and then went on the other end and made free throws or winning plays."

Michigan leaned on its defense in the early going and was sharp right out of the gate. The Wolverines contested shots, forced tough 2-pointers and didn’t give up many clean looks as the Nittany Lions missed 16 of their first 20 shot attempts.

However, Penn State was able to hit enough 3-pointers and force enough turnovers to hang around before the Wolverines started getting the ball to Dickinson. The big man scored three straight baskets in the paint, including a three-point play, with an array of post moves to help Michigan take a 24-14 lead at the 6:41 mark.

The Wolverines were on the cusp of breaking the game open as they used a barrage of 3-pointers — four within a 2:25 stretch — that was bookended by deep balls from Brooks to push it to 36-21 with 2:14 left in the half.

But that’s when Penn State began its 18-2 run with a string of six straight points and started to put the pressure on a Michigan team that didn't fold.

“We've had a situation where we were down and had to fight right back in it,” Howard said. “You're going to have those throughout the year. This is just going to be one of many, especially when you're talking about the Big Ten season.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins