It was technically a Michigan basketball home game, even though it was played 45 minutes away from Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines had more fans in the crowd, approximately 75% of the 14,206 spectators who crowded into Little Caesars Arena wore maize and blue, but they didn’t make noise until late, because it was Eastern Michigan’s Emoni Bates who stole the show.
But in the end, Michigan (2-0) stole the game, avoiding the upset with a 88-83 win, behind Hunter Dickinson who had 31 points and seven rebounds and Terrance Williams II who had his first career double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“You can learn a lot from a win, it doesn’t have to be a loss,” said coach Juwan Howard. “We knew coming in with an atmosphere like that it would be a game of runs … we knew it would be a very competitive game which was expected.
“Our guys did an amazing job of mental stability. When the runs were in Eastern Michigan’s favor and we were down we could’ve easily just folded and we didn’t.”
Bates, the Ypsilanti native and first five-star prospect to ever play on a MAC team, who transferred home after a disappointing freshman season and then battled legal trouble earlier in the fall — resulting in a suspension from the team and then reinstatement just more than one month later — looked like a player with the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders.
He scored a team-high 30 points on 12 of 19 shooting; the 17 points he scored in the first half alone tied his collegiate career high from last season at Memphis, as he looked very much like the player who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated three years ago.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt (he feels less pressure now),” said Eastern Michigan coach Stan Heath. “He wanted to come here because he felt at home, he felt comfortable, he felt connected to his teammates.
“All those things matter, fit matters. When players choose schools they should choose where do they fit. He fits here, feels very comfortable. I enjoy coaching him, I think he enjoys playing for me and playing for his teammates.”
EMU led for a majority of the second half, but with less than three minutes left, Llewellyn’s reverse layup gave U-M a 79-77 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. EMU (1-1) then committed an inbounding violation, turning the ball over. On that possession, Llewellyn made two free throws to extend the lead.
After a Bates miss, Llewellyn drove to the basket and missed, but Dickinson followed with a put-back to make the lead six with 2:04 to play.
With 1:27 to play, another EMU transfer, Tyson Acuff, scored a layup and drew Kobe Bufkin’s fifth foul. The free throw cut the lead to 83-80. But Llewellyn made two free throws — he finished with nine points including 7-of-10 from the free throw line — after a Bates foul to give Michigan a five-point lead. A missed Eastern Michigan 3-pointer and one last Dickinson fadeaway would end the upset attempt, even with Bates hitting a tough, leaning 3 with 9.3 seconds remaining.
“That last three he hit, I was like ‘damn’,” Dickinson admitted after. “That was a good contest by me and he made it, I mean, I was just glad they didn’t call a foul, I just tried to contest as hard as I could.
“That was a really good shot, I was pretty impressed by that one.”
Bates turns back the clock
Bates scored the first points of the game, hitting a baseline jumper off an in-bound pass to get the Eagles on the board. Less than two minutes later, he converted a fast break layup to put the Eagles up four.
The sophomore would go into a lull, committing a foul, missing two shots and forcing two turnovers over the next five minutes before taking a breather. But he was the best player in the arena on the other side of his rest.
After an 11-0 Michigan run, Bates hit a 3 to cap an 8-1 EMU surge to retake a 22-21 lead. He made a jumper off of a Wolverines turnover, then threw down a thunderous put-back slam over Michigan’s Tarris Reed Jr. which brought the crowd to its feet.
Bates, however, stared down Reed for a moment too long as was called for a technical foul — Jett Howard missed both free throws. Moments later after a quick 4-0 run gave Michigan the lead, Dug McDaniel was assessed a tech for taunting and Bates missed both free throws.
Bates capped his first half with a long jumper with just more than two minutes to play before a 30-foot contested 3-pointer gave the Eagles a 43-38 lead, tied for their largest of the game.
“I’ve seen this young man grow since the time he was put out there in the public news as what, I recall the best fourth-grader in the country,” Howard, who had a lengthy postgame chat with Bates, said after Friday’s win. “With that I was like, ‘OK, who’s rating the best fourth-grader in the country’ but you just see his growth each year.
“He starts getting compared to Kevin Durant and that’s hard for any young person, but give him credit for how he’s worked on his game and his skill set, so with that, some of the shots he made I wasn’t surprised, because I’ve seen him make a lot of tough shots.
Bates didn’t score his first bucket of the second half until the 13:25 mark, but he followed on the next possession with a ferocious one-handed slam to give EMU a three-point lead.
His next points came via a nifty behind-the-back pass from Orlando Lovejoy on a fastbreak which led to an easy layup for Bates. The sophomore would add another jumper and two free throws to give EMU a one-point lead with just more than four to play.
Bates missed consecutive threes, one with the game tied at 77, the next with EMU down, 81-77, and the Eagles could never get back within four.
EMU’s Noah Farrakhan added 19 points despite second half foul trouble, Acuff was the other Eagle in double figures with 10.
Terrance Williams, Hunter Dickinson provide the juice
The Wolverines are still figuring out how they fit together. They return just one starter (Dickinson) and only two players (Williams) who averaged at least 15 minutes a season ago.
Michigan found itself up against the wall and it consistently went to the captains, who came up with answers. Dickinson led U-M scorers in the first half with 12 points, while Williams had eight points and seven rebounds at the break and each played even better in the final 20 minutes.
The two combined to score 16 of the team’s first 19 second half points, and 29 of the 46 total, punctuated by a Dickinson and-1 with 11:44 to play which gave Michigan its first lead, 61-60, since it led 36-35 with 2:53 to play in the first half.
“Me and Hunter, we definitely took that to the heart,” Williams said. “Coach looks to us when times are rough, which it was because we were down at half, so we just had to come out and bring energy as leaders and I feel like we did that.”
After a 4-0 spurt by the Eagles, Dickinson went back to work. The junior hit a jumper and layup to keep the Wolverines within one. His next bucket, a turnaround with just less than five minutes to go, ended a 5-0 spurt that put Michigan back ahead.
“I think there was a stretch in that second half when we were in the lead, they made a run and they basically pounded it into Hunter,” said Eastern Michigan coach Stan Heath. “Hunter Dickinson is a problem, that guy is a load, he can score in different ways.
“We tried to give him different looks, double teams, single coverage, you know sag off, go behind, all those different things but it’s kind of a pick your poison situation because if you go too much on him, they’ve got other guys that can shoot.”
The game was tied 11 times and had 17 lead changes, but Dickinson proved to be too much. He played a perfect second half of basketball, going 8 of 8 from the field and 3-for-3 from the free-throw line for 19 points after halftime.
“I think I’m the toughest and hardest person on Hunter because I always expect more,” Howard said. “But give him credit, he doesn’t mind that I challenge him, he doesn’t mind being coached and he enjoys going out there and competing.”