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Hunter Dickinson lifts Michigan over Penn State in defining performance

Once again, the Wolverines played through their 7-foot-1 freshman center down the stretch.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

When the Michigan men’s basketball team was desperate for a basket on Sunday, Hunter Dickinson delivered.

That has become a common theme for the Wolverines, who played through their 7-foot-1 freshman center to avoid a colossal upset in an overtime win over Oakland on Nov. 29 and then did the same to fend off Penn State’s comeback bid on Sunday afternoon.

Trailing by two points with 2:08 remaining, fifth-year senior guard Mike Smith came off a ball screen and wrapped a bounce pass around the defense to a rolling Dickinson. He gathered the pass underneath the rim and threw down a game-tying two-handed dunk.

On the next possession, a Dickinson layup gave Michigan the lead. He scored a season-high 20 points in the Wolverines’ 62-58 win, but none were bigger than the final four. Dickinson’s last two buckets helped Michigan hang on after blowing a double-digit lead, preserving the Wolverines’ undefeated record.

“Hunter is just a tremendous basketball player all around,” fifth-year senior Austin Davis said. “He’s got great confidence and he’s really built for those moments. He’s done tremendously in them so far and I’m really proud of him, and I know that he’s gonna continue to push and work and deliver for us in those moments.”

For Dickinson, Sunday was a test in a lot of ways. After coming off the bench in Michigan’s first five games, he was forced into the starting lineup against the Nittany Lions following Davis’ right foot injury. He posted impressive numbers against non-conference opponents, but much of that came around the rim against smaller defenders. Questions lingered about whether his back-to-the-basket game and rebounding prowess would translate against the physicality of Big Ten defenses.

Against Penn State, his performance silenced any doubt. His 20 points came on an efficient 9-of-14 shooting, and he added seven rebounds and three blocks. Most of all, he showed he’s ready to hold his own in a conference defined by premier big men.

“I see the potential and how good Hunter is and how much potential he has,” Davis said. “… He’s the future of the program.”

While Dickinson could very well be the future of the program, he’s also emerging as its present. He leads Michigan in points, rebounds and blocks through six games despite playing only the fifth-most minutes.

A lot of that comes down to Dickinson’s rapid adjustment to college basketball. Despite playing his high school basketball in one of the country’s most competitive conferences, the leap to the Division I level is still steep for most.

One area Dickinson has zeroed in on since arriving in Ann Arbor over the summer is finishing through traffic. It’s something he didn’t have to worry much about when he was a head taller than the competition in high school, but he’s worked closely with Michigan coach Juwan Howard and Director of Basketball Operations Chris Hunter to improve in that regard during practice.

“That was never my strong suit coming up, especially in high school and stuff like that, it was tough for me to finish in traffic off the pick-and-roll,” Dickinson said. “But I think here, since pick-and-roll is a really big part of our offense with coach Howard’s NBA-style offense, I’ve really gotten accustomed to catching and finishing in traffic. Especially with him during practice, with player development and stuff like that, (we’ve been) working on those kinds of things because I told him that’s something I would like to get better at. … I think that’s the biggest stride I’ve made so far.”

Added Howard: “He wants to improve in every area of his game, he can’t do nothing but cheer for a guy like that. You can’t do (anything) but try to feed him more and more information and help him get better. Because he wants it. He wants it in film. We do individual work together. He wants it in practice. And that’s confidence that he doesn’t lack at all and we do whatever we can to help him get better.”

So far, Dickinson’s rise is paying off in a big way.