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Hunter Dickinson’s second-half heroics help Michigan escape upset

The 7-foot-1 freshman scored 19 points in Michigan’s overtime win over Oakland on Sunday.

Bowling Green v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When the Michigan men’s basketball team needed someone to step up down the stretch against Oakland on Sunday, Hunter Dickinson answered the call.

The true freshman emerged as the 25th-ranked Wolverines’ go-to option against zone defense, and his 19 second-half points helped Michigan stave off a historic upset. The Wolverines escaped the Golden Grizzlies in overtime, 81-71, on the shoulders of Dickinson’s big performance around the rim.

“(Dickinson) uses his body very well,” freshman forward Terrance Williams said. “… His touch has definitely gotten better. (It) will be better than most big men in this league. A lot of big men in this lead don’t have a lot of touch, but he has good touch around the rim and around the 3-point line.”

By the end of the game, the 7-foot-1, 255-pound Dickinson was getting a post touch on every Michigan position. The Wolverines made a conscious effort to work the ball into the heart of Oakland’s zone defense, which created favorable kick-out lanes for Dickinson. His four assists kept the Golden Grizzlies from collapsing on him when he caught the ball around the rim.

When the kick-outs weren’t there, Dickinson and Williams created offense against the zone by exploiting high-low passing angles. The two Washington, D.C. natives have played travel basketball together since elementary school, and it showed in their chemistry on Sunday night. Both saw crucial playing time in the second half.

“Coach (Juwan) Howard is always calling us the DMV boys,” Dickinson said. “… You can just tell out there that we’ve been playing together for a long time. When he first subbed us in, we knew that we had to provide a spark on the bench because our team needed it. We just tried to go in there and play as hard as we can, give them good minutes and it turned out really well for us.”

Through two games, Dickinson has now totaled 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting, 12 rebounds and five assists. He’s also shooting 77 percent at the free throw line.

That type of early-season success is a product of Dickinson’s work ethic since arriving on campus over the summer. When NCAA rules permitted one-on-one workouts for players and coaches earlier this fall, he regularly reached out to Howard. The relationship they share is a match made in heaven: A freshman full of untapped potential and a 19-year NBA veteran at his position who began his coaching career in a player development role.

“(Dickinson) is the type of guy that is hungry, wants more information, thrives and loves the idea of working with a coach like myself who played a similar position as him, played at the highest level,” Howard said. “… I love it when he reaches out to me and asks me, ‘Can I get work in?’ That’s the beauty of having a guy like Hunter, who wants to get better and I enjoy that.”

For a Michigan team that lost its starting center to graduation during the offseason, the emergence of Dickinson is a critical development. Howard’s only other starting center option is Austin Davis, a fifth-year senior who hasn’t played more than 17 minutes in a game at any point in his career. Junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. provides a small-ball ‘5’ option, but Dickinson’s size and physicality gives the Wolverines their best chance to contend in the Big Ten.

And in two short weeks, Dickinson will be trying to help Michigan do exactly that. So far, the early returns have been promising.