Moussa Diabate's first-half burst a bright spot amid Michigan's offensive struggles

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

It was only a matter of time until freshman forward Moussa Diabate cracked Michigan’s starting lineup.

That time came Wednesday night when Diabate earned his first start in place of senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and put together a stellar first-half performance in a 72-51 blowout loss at North Carolina.

“Moussa was playing well,” coach Juwan Howard said when asked about the decision. “He deserves it.”

Diabate showed why over the opening 20 minutes as he carried a lackluster offensive attack and was seemingly unstoppable, making his first five shots from all over the floor.

The 6-foot-11 big man got things started by showing off his post moves, scoring his first bucket on a right-handed jump hook before backing down a defender and finishing with his left hand at the rim.

He continued to flash his tantalizing talent by showing off his shooting stroke. He buried his first 3-pointer when he was left all alone on the wing. He followed that by facing up and knocking down a pair of jumpers over 6-foot-9 forward Brady Manek, using a jab step on one of them to create enough space.

Michigan forward Moussa Diabate (14) scored a team-high 13 points in Wednesday's loss at North Carolina.

"He's a high-energy guy, so it brought a big spark,” fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks said. “He made simple the plays and he worked for it.”

While Diabate was the lone bright spot on a dreary night, his outing wasn’t enough to mask all of No. 24 Michigan’s offensive woes. Poor outside shooting (5-for-16 on 3-pointers) and turnovers (13) were a problem again. A lack of ball movement, flow and spacing never allowed the Wolverines to kick into gear.

Instead of breaking down the defense and generating easy baskets off ball screens, Diabate was often forced to create for himself in one-on-one situations. His ability to do that helped keep Michigan in the game as he scored 11 points and was an efficient 5-for-6 from the field in the first half.

But Diabate, much like the rest of the team, went cold in the second half. He missed all three of his field-goal attempts and scored only two points after halftime, none coming over the final 19 minutes. And once Diabate’s hot hand cooled off, Michigan had no answer as the offense struggled mightily against North Carolina.

Aside from Brooks, the Wolverines got little production out of their guards. Grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones was shaky once again, finishing with four points (2-for-8 shooting), three assists, three turnovers and a team-worst minus-25 plus-minus rating in 30 minutes. Freshman Frankie Collins saw action in the first half, while freshman Kobe Bufkin and sophomore Zeb Jackson didn’t check in until the final couple minutes.

It also didn’t help that sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, the focal point of the offense, was neutralized. He finished with four points on five shot attempts while playing a career-low 18 minutes. Everything caved in when he picked up his third and fourth fouls 12 seconds apart early in the second half.

“He's a heavy part of our offense, so running different plays that don't revolve around him particularly (hurts),” Brooks said. “As we saw, Moussa is a good option at the five, but he's not the same presence as Hunter.”

With Dickinson on the bench for 10 straight minutes, Michigan muddled through a stretch where it made one basket in six minutes and North Carolina took advantage of his absence. The Tar Heels attacked the paint with ease and turned a four-point lead into a 15-point cushion the Wolverines couldn’t overcome.

It led to Michigan’s third loss — the Wolverines lost three games in the entire regular season last year — and some familiar messages, with Brooks telling his teammates to “stay the course” and Howard viewing the defeat as a learning experience.

Despite another rough showing and recurring offensive concerns — Diabate’s first-half effort being the exception — the Wolverines aren’t pushing the panic button.

“A lot of people have to gain their confidence back and believe in themselves," Brooks said. "One thing we talk about is trust, and we’ve got to be able to trust ourselves and others.

“We’ve still got a whole lot of season in front of us. Just try and win the next game and go on a little streak here and continue to grow.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins