It was only one sequence. But it seemed to capture the resurgence of a Michigan basketball team that had flatlined one week ago. Kobe Bufkin raced toward the goal, releasing the ball high off the backboard just as he collided with multiple Ohio State defenders.
As he crashed to the floor, the shot caromed off the rim. With a crowd of bodies around him, he peeled himself off the hardwood, retrieved the ball, and hit a put-back layup midway through the first half of a 77-69 victory over the Buckeyes on Sunday at Crisler Center.
Bufkin’s hustle play epitomized the renewed spirit the Wolverines have shown in the past four days, when Michigan has shown it still has some fight.
That was in question last Sunday, when Penn State took it to the Wolverines in a 22-point rout that further dimmed their NCAA tournament prospects.
Not long thereafter, Bufkin acknowledged the team’s backs were against the wall. Guard Joey Baker went a step further, saying Michigan was in “desperation time.” That frantic state informed Michigan’s rousing second-half performance in a 17-point victory over Northwestern on Thursday and its aggressive play Sunday against the Buckeyes.
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) makes a pass against Ohio State forward Zed Key (23) during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023.
Not wasting any time
Right from the tip, Michigan showed verve. Dug McDaniel popped in a three-pointer. Then, on the very next position, Bufkin hit his own. The Sunday crowd, which had been somnolent in previous Big Ten games, was juiced.
As the fans roared, the Wolverines (13-10, 7-5 Big Ten) slowly extended their lead, answering each of Ohio State’s spurts with one that was lengthier and more forceful. Hunter Dickinson, who produced a game-high 26 points, worked his magic near the rim — spinning around defenders for layups and dropping shots over them with baby hooks. When the ball didn’t find Dickinson in the post, Jett Howard created his own opportunities around the arc, launching shots off the dribble and then watching them splash through the net en route to a 16-point afternoon. And then there was Bufkin, who seemed to do a little everything. He poured in 13 points, dished out five assists, snared eight rebounds, attacked the rim and galvanized his teammates with his effort. At one point he dove for a loose ball, securing a tie-up. Possession went to Ohio State. But it didn’t matter. A message was sent. Bufkin had come to compete. So did Michigan, which must have smelled blood leaking out of its wounded rivals.
Ohio State, after all, had become a malfunctioning team over the past month – falling into disarray amid a run in which it had lost eight of its last nine games.
The one bright spot was its budding newcomer, Brice Sensabaugh. The freshman forward had become their only dependable source of offense, averaging 17.4 points per game – five more than the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer. But Chris Holtmann parked his rising star on the bench at the start of the game, making him sit for the first four minutes.
It was a curious move that didn’t work. Sure, Sensabaugh eventually made a dent on the stat sheet, netting 14 points.
But the Buckeyes (11-12, 3-9) fell behind 22 seconds into the game, and they never drew even again.
Holtmann spent the entire game searching for the right combination that would give his struggling squad an edge. He dipped deep into his bench and substituted liberally while using a rotation of nine players. But Michigan found a way to keep Ohio State at bay.
Michigan guard Jett Howard (13) celebrates a 3-point basket with guard Kobe Bufkin (2) against Ohio State during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023.
Dickinson reprised his role as the team’s most dependable scorer, supplying timely baskets that blunted several comeback attempts in the second half. On one such occasion, he answered a Sensabaugh three-pointer with two consecutive layups, forcing an exasperated Holtmann to call a timeout with U-M ahead 54-47 at the 12:52 mark of the second half.
But Holtmann couldn’t quell the momentum. The Wolverines pushed its lead back to double digits, showing the kind of consistency that has eluded them for much of the season. It was the latest positive development that offered convincing evidence Michigan has begun to turn the page at this late stage of the season.
With the victory Sunday, the Wolverines have pieced together their first winning streak since early January.
More importantly, a team left for dead last Sunday has been revived. That was seen near the end of the game Sunday, when Ohio State’s Justice Sueing was smothered at every turn before seeing his shot blocked. The player guarding him was none other than Bufkin, the gritty guard who has helped give Michigan new life.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball’s resurgence continues in 77-69 win vs. Ohio State