One of the most anticipated games of the season in the Big Ten lived up to the hype Sunday as No. 3 Michigan outlasted No. 4 Ohio State 92-87 in a battle of teams that entered the day as projected No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams thrived offensively throughout the game, but one key miscue by the Buckeyes flipped the momentum in Michigan's favor in the final minutes.
With Ohio State trailing just 77-74, Buckeyes wing Justice Sueing throw a behind-the-back pass in the direction of E.J. Liddell that Liddell did not see. Michigan wing Isaiah Livers scooped it up and went the distance for a layup with 2:35 left, and he was fouled in the process. His free throw put the Wolverines up 80-74, and they never looked back.
Michigan won the battle of fast break points 10-0 in the second-half to stay on top after it went cold from behind the arc. The Wolverines (16-1, 11-1 Big Ten) made 10-of-13 tries from 3-point range in the first half but showed their versatility in the second half in transition and in the paint as they got another monster performance from Hunter Dickinson. The 7-foot-1 center led the way with 22 points and nine rebounds for Michigan.
Liddell did everything he could to match Dickinson's production, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but the Buckeyes (18-5, 12-5) ultimately could not match up with Michigan's combination of size, outside shooting and ability to drive the basketball as their seven-game win streak came to an end. Duane Washington Jr. led all scorers for Ohio State with a career-high 30 points. His late 3-pointer pulled Ohio State within three with three seconds left.
From there, Eli Brooks iced the game at the free-throw line for Michigan, which has now won five in a row, including three straight since returning last Sunday from a 23-day break between games due to COVID-19 precautions.
Here now are three takeaways from Michigan's road win on Sunday over rival Ohio State.
1. Michigan's balance
All eight Michigan players who saw the floor scored in the first half, and by game's end, there were five Wolverines in double figures. Dickinson led the way, but Brooks contributed 17 and Chaundee Brown added 15 off the bench. Brown, a transfer from Wake Forest, also made his impact felt defensively and on the boards. He made two offensive rebounds on the same possession and finished the sequence with a basket at the 5:45 mark that put Michigan ahead 71-69. The Wolverines never relinquished the lead from there.
Livers contributed 12 points and point guard Mike Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists. In total, the Wolverines shot 53.4% from the floor, and 19 of their 31 makes were assisted compared to just 11 assists on 32 baskets for Ohio State.
2. Battle of the big men
A big question entering the game centered on how Ohio State might defend Dickinson. With their tallest rotation player standing at just 6-8, the Buckeyes began the game double-teaming Dickinson and backup center Austin Davis nearly every time they touched the ball. That strategy limited the Wolverines' post scoring, but it allowed Michigan to find open looks from 3-point range.
Ultimately, Dickinson managed to feast in the second half on whomever Ohio State sent his way. His vicious dunk with 4:15 remaining put the Wolverines ahead 75-72 and gave Michigan another late dose of momentum.
Liddell shined too, though, and proved he's quite the matchup problem himself. The 6-7 post player proved too nimble and athletic for Dickinson and Davis to contain as he continues to look like one of the nation's most improved players during his sophomore season. Figuring out how to defend Liddell will be a must for any team that wants to get past the Buckeyes in postseason play.
3. Big Ten implications
Michigan has not officially captured the Big Ten regular season crown yet, but Sunday's win means Illinois is likely the only team with a shot at catching the Wolverines in the title race. At 16-5 (12-3 Big Ten), the No. 5 Illini are the only team other than Michigan with fewer than five losses in the league.
As things stand now, the Wolverines have games scheduled against Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and two contests with Michigan State left in the regular season. If Michigan stumbles against Iowa or Indiana in the week ahead, it would place a huge emphasis on the March 2 game between Michigan and Illinois. The two have not played yet this season, but Illinois has a 7-footer of its own in Kofi Cockburn who is capable of bruising with Dickinson in the paint.
Barring some unforeseen twists in the final two weeks of the regular season, that game between the Wolverines and Illini looks like the only left that could challenge Sunday's showdown between Michigan and Ohio State as the top game of the regular season in what has clearly been established as the nation's best league.