'Beautiful': Banner raised, No. 6 UM impresses as fans return to Crisler
Ann Arbor — The energy. The fans decked out in maize and blue. The cheers and “Go Blue” chants.
A year after playing in empty arenas and in front of small groups of family members due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of that was back at Crisler Center during Wednesday’s banner night for the Wolverines.
After celebrating last season’s Big Ten regular-season title in a pregame ceremony, No. 6 Michigan kicked off its campaign with an 88-76 win over Buffalo in front of a lively home crowd for the first time since March 5, 2020.
“Granted the cardboard (cutouts) were pretty cool and they did their best as far as supporting us,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The crowd noise — they tried, but it's nothing like having your fans here and seeing it in flesh. That lets me recognize that there's a little normalcy that's coming back and our guys feeding off that energy is beautiful.”
Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson finished with 27 points and six rebounds to lead a balanced attack that saw eight players score at least five points. Sophomore forward Terrance Williams II added a career-high 15 points off the bench and made several key baskets in the second half.
Fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks and freshman forward Caleb Houstan each chipped in 11 points for Michigan (1-0), which shot 54.2% (32-for-59) from the field but missed 12 of its 30 free-throw attempts.
Jeenathan Williams scored 32, Ronaldo Segu 15 and Josh Mballa 13 for Buffalo (0-1), which shot 41.2% (28-for-68) from the field, 17.9% (5-for-28) from 3-point range and turned 12 offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points.
The veteran Buffalo squad — the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference and the nation’s top rebounding team a year ago — provided a stiff test and proved to be no cakewalk.
After leading by as much as 21 points in the first half and taking a 15-point lead into halftime, Michigan sputtered out of the break. Grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones checked out after picking up his third foul and Buffalo made a push fueled by Segu and Williams, cutting the deficit to 56-49 with 15:41 to play.
“It's a game of runs and we were trying to minimize it as much as we can,” Dickinson said. “Last year in that game, it would've been really quiet with the artificial crowd noise and I don't think we would've been able to feed off that kind of energy. They (fans) helped us out a lot when they did make that run.”
Dickinson helped the Wolverines maintain control, scoring in the paint, getting credited for an offensive tip-in and sinking two free throws after a hook-and-hold call to push the lead to 66-53 at the 12:34 mark.
But Buffalo didn’t back down. Williams scored nine straight for the Bulls before Keishawn Brewton buried a 3-pointer to make it 72-67 during a stretch where Dickinson and Jones both missed the front end of a one-and-one, a Dickinson basket was waved off due to an offensive foul, and both teams were whistled for a third technical foul.
That’s as close as it would get as Michigan pulled away with a 12-2 run. The spurt was bookended by 3-pointers from Williams and Houstan, widening the margin to 84-69 with 3:12 to go. The Wolverines led by at least 12 points the rest of the way to secure their first win.
“They made their run and cut the lead down and I feel like we handled ourselves very mature-like, very championship-like,” Williams said. “We didn't point fingers. We stayed together. We continued to execute plays. We continued to play defense to the best of our ability.”
The first half was a different story. The new faces wasted little time making an impact as Michigan got off to a strong start and took a double-digit lead less than six minutes into the game. Jones was disruptive on the defensive end and fed Dickinson on a pair of pick-and-rolls. Houstan contested a 3-pointer, raced down the court and finished a fast-break layup through contact for a three-point play.
On the next possession, freshman forward Moussa Diabate found Houstan on the wing for an open 3-pointer. Houstan returned the favor by whipping a pass to Diabate for an uncontested dunk before Diabate fired a pass out of the post to Brooks for a corner 3-pointer and a 24-11 lead with 12:44 left in the first half.
Even with Jones and Houstan saddled on the bench with two fouls, the Wolverines continued to cruise along, racking up the stops and converting at a high clip. Williams capped a 10-0 spurt with an offensive rebound and four-point play to give Michigan a 40-19 cushion at the 6:22 mark before Buffalo fought back.
"Obviously you don't want to lose the lead and make it close. Juwan probably got a couple more gray hairs from that,” Dickinson said. “I thought it was a good test for us, a good showing of resilience because we are a younger team. … A game like this will really help us prepare for the adversity that will come.”