IOWA CITY, Iowa — From the moment Michigan basketball welcomed freshman forward Moussa Diabate to Ann Arbor, the descriptions from teammates and coaches seemed to land on attributes that separate the passionate, comedic, hyper-athletic and ultra-skilled big man from anyone else on the roster.
Questions to coach Juwan Howard elicit answers touching on his work ethic and desire to improve. Questions to his teammates deliver admiration for a player with NBA skills.
And if questions were posed to Iowa, a team whose season was wavering just like Michigan’s, they might only bring an absence of speech following 40 minutes of futile efforts to stop him.
Five days after Diabate yielded most of the 28 points scored by Ohio State star E.J. Liddell, he matched that point total in the best game of his young career, as the Wolverines held on to win, 84-79, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Diabate’s 28 points and eight rebounds outshone Keegan Murray, the Big Ten’s leading scorer — and the player he was responsible for guarding much of the evening. Diabate and center Hunter Dickinson combined for 42 points and 17 rebounds to propel the Wolverines to their biggest road victory of the season by dominating the paint.
The Wolverines withstood a frantic rally by the Hawkeyes to inch closer to an NCAA tournament berth.
“Maybe my teammates aren’t going to say it, but I feel like I cost us the (Ohio State) game because (Liddell) was able to get to his spots and get buckets, and he’s a great player,” Diabate said. “So what I did to change that is definitely be more aggressive because, you know, they’re going to attack me, so why not do the same?”
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Michigan was dealt a blow shortly before tipoff when small forward Terrance Williams II was ruled out with a sprained left ankle. Williams, who leads U-M reserves in minutes and points per game, participated in warmups and was on the bench but never entered the game.
An already thin group of substitutes grew thinner just a few days after associate head coach Phil Martelli stressed the need for more production from the backups and Howard assured reporters there was plenty of scoring available. But when Michigan limped into foul trouble late in the first half, the scarcely used Jace Howard and walk-on Jaron Faulds were called into action.
How Michigan planned to defend Murray, who entered averaging 23.3 points per game, was of paramount importance after such struggles against Liddell.
The assignment once again fell to Diabate, whom Howard said had fire in his eyes during a locker room embrace after Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. Murray tested the freshman from the opening tap and scored five points on Iowa’s first two possessions while also drawing a foul. But Diabate responded with an excellent first-half performance that landed somewhere between fearlessness and youthful bravado. He scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds to finish within a point of Murray (13 points, two rebounds) at the break.
Short hook shots from Diabate were paired with equally effective inside scoring from Dickinson, who finished the half with eight points, three rebounds and four assists in a well-rounded showing. Their contributions toward Michigan’s 26 points in the paint during the opening 20 minutes were vital on a night when the Wolverines made one of their first 12 shots from beyond the arc.
“(Diabate) is really eager to learn so that really helps him in his development,” Dickinson said of Diabate. “He’s getting better each and every day. I think you can see it out there.”
The ways Dickinson and Diabate influenced the game differed in response to Iowa’s defensive strategy for each player. With the Hawkeyes favoring hard double teams on Dickinson, the opportunities for cross-court passes out of the post were plentiful, and Michigan’s star connected with Jones and Brooks for 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half as U-M seized the lead. He finished with a team-high seven assists.
While Dickinson facilitated, Diabate relished the single coverage he received from Murray, Filip Rebraca and anyone else the Hawkeyes threw in his direction. Diabate blended soft hooks in the lane with the kind of face-up ability NBA teams covet, spinning and wriggling his way to the hoop for baskets through contact. He also flashed a mid-range jumper by swishing a baseline fadeaway that extended Michigan’s lead to 10 with 7:52 remaining and afforded Diabate the chance to flex his muscles and bellow while retreating down the court.
Diabate’s influence spread to both ends of the floor Thursday as he bothered Murray most of the game. His ceaseless supply of energy helped limit Murray to 39.1% shooting on 23 attempts, including multiple missed dunks.
“From the time when I recruited him,” Howard said, “I knew what type of player we were getting: A guy that’s a competitor and a guy that’s also skilled.”
There was fire in Diabate’s eyes last Saturday, and he unleashed it against the Hawkeyes.