'We made each other look great': Michigan pounds Nebraska in Big Ten opener
Lincoln, Neb. — Before Michigan even took the floor for its Big Ten opener, it suffered a big loss.
Freshman forward Moussa Diabate, a blossoming piece of the rotation who recently moved into the starting lineup, didn’t make the trip to Nebraska due to a non-COVID related illness.
Diabate's absence mattered little as sophomore forward Terrance Williams II and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. picked up the slack and the Wolverines used an offensive explosion to throttle the Cornhuskers, 102-67, Tuesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Williams scored a career-high 22 points and Johns tied his career high with 20 points to lead the onslaught for Michigan (6-3, 1-0), which shot 51.3% from the field (39-for-76), made a season-high 15 3-pointers and finished with 25 assists.
“(Johns’) production was as great as you can ask for in a young man who's been competing hard. And at times when things haven't gone his way, he's always stuck in there,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said.
“Terrance gave us a big lift when Brandon went out of the game and made shots from the outside. He also made plays, not just on the offensive end but being able to defend and battle on the boards. It was a good all-around balance for us offensively by the way we shared the basketball.”
Freshman forward Caleb Houstan finished with 16 points and four made 3-pointers, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson tallied 15 points and 12 rebounds, and fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks added 10 points for an offensive attack that appears to have turned a corner.
After dominating the first half and leading by as much as 21, little changed after halftime. The Wolverines kept their foot on the gas and maintained their large advantage despite running into early foul trouble in the second half.
Even though Michigan had no answer for Alonzo Verge Jr., who single-handedly carried Nebraska’s offense and cut the deficit to 59-44 with 14:05 left, the one-man show wasn’t nearly enough to keep pace as the Wolverines hummed along.
A turnover by Nebraska led to a Brooks 3-pointer in transition. Back-to-back steals on consecutive possessions led to fast-break layups for Houstan and Williams, making it 71-49 with 11:56 remaining.
Michigan kept pouring it on as it kept raining 3s. The Wolverines drained four deep balls during a three-minute stretch — two from Houstan and one apiece from freshman guard Kobe Bufkin and Williams — to put the game on ice, 87-56, with 7:39 left.
“I think we were a lot more connected this game,” said Johns, who slid back into the starting lineup in Diabate's place. “We had a lot of trust within each other, which we always need. We always made the extra pass. Everybody was in their spots. We made each other look great. It was awesome.”
The Wolverines took their largest lead, 100-65, at the 1:41 mark on a dunk from Bufkin as they hung up 100 points for the first time since Dec. 6, 2019 and set a Pinnacle Bank Arena record for opponent points scored.
Verge scored 31 but received little help for Nebraska (5-5, 0-2), which shot 31.9% from the field (23-for-72), finished 5-for-35 from 3-point range and has lost 16 of the past 17 meetings between the teams.
“I have never been a part of one like this where we just quit competing. It is so discouraging,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Missed shots really affected our energy all over the floor. After playing a game last week and a couple days ago at Indiana where the shots were not falling in, we competed and guarded and rebounded and followed the game plan. Today, we were completely out of it.”
Johns looked rejuvenated from the jump while filling in for Diabate. He was assertive and tied his season high of seven points less than four minutes into the game. He drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, finished over a defender with a left-handed hook and drew a foul that led to two free throws as Michigan took an 11-8 lead with 15:50 left in the first half.
Meanwhile, Dickinson picked up from where he left off against San Diego State as his size and vision helped kickstart a 26-7 run. He backed down his defender for three easy buckets in the paint — finishing with his right hand on the last — and splashed a 3-pointer. He found Williams out of a double-team for an open 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 26-15 at the 9:27 mark.
The Wolverines received contributions from an array of sources during the spurt. After freshman guard Frankie Collins appeared to roll his ankle and limped off the court, sophomore guard Zeb Jackson checked in and made an instant impact. He drove and dished to Williams for a layup and followed that with a 3-pointer to force a Nebraska timeout.
After grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones capped the big run with a 3-pointer, the deep balls continued to fall. The Wolverines hit three long-range shots within a 96-second span, the last coming from Johns to widen the gap to 45-24 at the 4:01 mark.
That was the start of strong first-half finish by Johns. He scored the final nine points for Michigan, drawing fouls on two offensive rebounds that led to four free throws and throwing down a two-handed dunk for a 51-32 cushion at the break.
“I know Moussa brings a lot to the team, so we just wanted to try to replace some of it,” Williams said. “It just happened to be scoring today. We played hard on both ends like he does, and we defended very well.
“Coach Howard always talks about staying ready, being that next man up when your name is called. I think everybody was ready when their name was called and they got in the game.”