'He was a mismatch': Franz Wagner steps up scoring, Michigan takes down Nebraska
The Wolverines weren’t home for the holidays, but Franz Wagner still made sure they had something to celebrate.
The sophomore wing wanted to be more assertive offensively heading into Friday’s Christmas Day matchup at Nebraska and he delivered, scoring a season-high 20 points as No. 19 Michigan passed its first road test with an 80-69 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
"I think Franz did a good job,” said freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who donned a Christmas hat postgame after recording his second double-double with 13 points and 15 rebounds. “He definitely was more aggressive this game. I think he does a great job of letting the game come to him. He doesn't force a lot of stuff.
“For defenses, it's hard covering a 6-foot-9 wing who can put it on the floor. It makes guards hesitant for the drive and then he can shoot over a lot of people who guard him. He was a mismatch out there and he took advantage of it.”
Wagner finished 9-for-16 from the field and added nine rebounds for Michigan (7-0, 2-0 Big Ten), which was playing on Christmas for the second time in program history. The Wolverines shot 57.7% from the field (15-for-26) after halftime and led the entire second half thanks to a strong start out of the break.
After going 4-for-17 from 3-point range in a seesaw first half where neither team led by more than four, the Wolverines dialed it in, turned it up on both ends and used a 17-6 run to gain some separation. Senior forward Isaiah Livers and Wagner each made a 3-pointer as Michigan scored 10 unanswered points and pulled ahead, 53-41, with 14:39 to play.
Teddy Allen snapped the spurt with a step-back, banked-in 3-pointer, but it only offered a brief reprieve for Nebraska. Livers came right back with another deep ball and Dickinson capped the flurry with a basket to extend the lead to 60-47 with 11:47 remaining.
“Really, I thought we played the whole 40 minutes the same way. We got the same shots and shot the same shots with confidence,” Wagner said. “Over the course of the game, if you get good shots like that, they're going to fall at some point. I think we did a good job of moving the ball, attacking the paint and kicking out to open shooters.
“I think we took a lot of good 3s, especially in the first half, and we just didn't make them. Then in second half, a lot of shots went down. That's just the way basketball works.”
A dry spell allowed the Cornhuskers (4-5, 0-2) to battle back and chip away at the deficit. Trey McGowens sparked an 11-2 run and Nebraska closed within 64-60 at the 6:20 mark.
But Michigan never lost control as grad transfer guard Mike Smith stepped up with timely baskets and key plays. He drained a 3-pointer to quell Nebraska's momentum and dished out a pair of assists down the stretch, the last to Wagner for a layup that made it 73-65 with 3:20 remaining. The Wolverines maintained that margin the rest of the way.
"This is not Mike's first rodeo,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very good ball-handler and decision-maker for us. He’s also a big-time shot maker. He's made a lot of shots, some big shots during his days at Columbia. It was great to see Mike have the poise and confidence to deliver when his team needed.”
Allen finished with 25 points, 21 coming in the first half, on 22 shots for Nebraska, which shot 34.4% after halftime (11-for-32). Dalano Banton added 17 points and McGowens scored 15, all in the second half.
Livers had 17 points and three of Michigan's nine made 3-pointers. Senior guard Chaundee Brown scored 13 off the bench and helped shut down Allen in the second half, while Smith finished with 10 points and six assists.
Playing for the first time since Dec. 13, Michigan had to knock off some rust but still generated plenty of clean looks on offense. However, the Wolverines had trouble knocking down open shots and containing Allen, who got off to a sizzling start.
Allen put on a show and hit tough shots all over the floor. He finished through traffic at the rim, drained a fadeaway jumper, buried a contested 3-pointer and even drew a foul on a 3-point attempt. He scored 14 of Nebraska’s first 19 points during his early barrage and the Cornhuskers led by four with 12:18 left in first half.
Wagner did his best to counter, trading baskets with Allen in the early stages and picking up the scoring slack as Nebraska doubled Dickinson in the post.
“(Wagner) made some really good plays. He knocked down some shots, went aggressive to the basket, had some tough finishes,” Howard said. “He understands I'm a coach that's going to really encourage him to play his game. Whenever he's open, let it fly. When the ball is in his hands, I trust that he's going to make the right play.”
After being held scoreless over the first 15 minutes, Dickinson finally broke through with a dunk and offensive tip-in off his own miss to put Michigan ahead, 29-25, at the 4:17 mark.
Allen capped his hot half with an acrobatic layup and deep 3-pointer before Wagner ended the back-and-forth stanza with an and-1 putback, giving Michigan a 36-34 edge at the break.
"I mean, I just care that we won,” Wagner said when asked if Friday’s outing was the type of offensive performance he had in mind.
“I thought I took good shots, tried to get into the paint, took open 3s. I think that's what everybody is supposed to do on the team, and if that leads to a win, I'm very happy.”