Dug McDaniel ducked around a screen, veered into the lane, found his spot and arched up a tear-drop floater. As the shot dropped towards the net, Crisler Center held its collective breath — Michigan’s lead stood at just three points, and Penn State had narrowly missed a game-tying 3-pointer on its previous trip down the floor.
McDaniel’s floater fell in. Everyone exhaled. Michigan now found itself up five points with just 70 seconds to play, and that lead held through the final whistle, the Wolverines winning their third straight conference game to open Big Ten play.
McDaniel not only sealed the win, he led the way, notching 12 points, four assists and zero turnovers in a crisp performance that mirrored the team’s outing as a whole.
“(The game has) definitely slowed down,” McDaniel said. “A player like me is always hungry. Coming from where I’m from, my physique, my appearance, I can never be comfortable. I’m always hungry, always ready to take on the next task. It showed.”
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It most definitely did. Across 33 minutes, McDaniel played with a poise he’s rarely displayed thus far in his freshman year. Often, erratic play has hampered his minutes, particularly in stints off the bench early in the season.
“The biggest thing that I’ve seen him improve is just picking his spots on when to be fast and when to be slow,” Hunter Dickinson said. “He’s one of the fastest players in the country, so we’re gonna use that speed to our advantage. But there’s times when to be fast and times when to slow down. He’s doing a really good job of picking those spots and being a floor leader out there for us.”
From the start, McDaniel did just that. In the first eight minutes, he weaved his way downhill for a trio of leaning floaters, vaulting Michigan to an early double-digit lead.
And when Penn State stormed back — testing the Wolverines’ mettle — McDaniel again rose to the occasion, this time with his passing.
The Nittany Lions used an 11-0 run early in the second half to tie the game at 47. Michigan’s offense, once humming, looked discombobulated, the ball movement having stalled.
On its first possession after Penn State tied the game, McDaniel found Jett Howard open on the left wing. Howard canned a 3-pointer, pushing Michigan back in front for good.
A few minutes later, McDaniel zipped a pass into the corner for Joey Baker, who nailed a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 14. Asked about his growth on the floor, McDaniel went out of his way to mention that sequence.
“Even though I’m a pass-first guard, I still look back and (thought I) could do a better job of getting my teammates involved,” he explained. “I may make the right pass, but I wasn’t in the right spot for them. I made it my duty to make sure that I hit them on time, on target, in the right spot.”
“I found Joey and I feel like I hit him on target. A few months ago, the ball would’ve been low or too high.”
A few months ago, McDaniel wouldn’t have played the second-most minutes in a game in which Michigan had just three turnovers, either. But he’s worked on taking care of the ball, too.
Just like his passing, the growth is evident.
“It’s been an emphasis, savoring our possessions, getting quality shots,” McDaniel said. “Me and Kobe (Bufkin) have come together, we’ve built a great bond, made it our duty to take care of the ball, make sure we’re efficient and take care of every opportunity that we get on the offensive end.”
It won’t always pan out like it did Wednesday night. It would be unfair to expect a freshman point guard to perform at such caliber game in and game out. Both McDaniel and Michigan recognize that.
“Dug, he has a chip,” Juwan Howard said. “… There’s gonna be some times — he’s a freshman — where he’s gonna make some mistakes on the floor. But with the ball in his hands, we all trust he’s gonna make the right play.”
That’s what occurred against Penn State, with Michigan’s fate resting in McDaniel’s hands during the game’s waning moments. McDaniel may have initially seized the starting point guard role out of mere circumstance and necessity, in the wake of Jaelin Llewellyn’s season-ending ACL injury. But he’s there now because of his play, because of his growth.
And as Michigan steers its season back on track, that looms large.
“It’s evident on the court, the work that we’re putting in behind the scenes, the corrections that we’re making,” McDaniel said. “Our season, it’s uphill from here.”