Michigan basketball team hangs on to beat Northwestern, 75-66, in critical Big Ten game
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Updated at 10 p.m.
As soon as the Michigan basketball team knocked off Penn State on Sunday, the message started to filter through the players.
Wednesday would be a big deal game. The season, now in the middle of February, was starting to wind down. Michigan knew it still had a shot to make a run toward the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore guard Darius Morris, junior guard Zack Novak and coach John Beilein let everybody know what a Wednesday matchup at home against Northwestern meant.
After the Wolverines held on to beat the Wildcats 75-66 by surviving a late-game flurry from Northwestern, they exhaled for approximately a second.
“After the Penn State game, we came out and said this could determine our season right here, whether we win, whether we lose,” freshman forward Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “If we win, we have a great chance. If we lose, it’s just going to get even harder.”
Harder almost showed up. Northwestern made a 14-0 late-game run that cut a double-digit lead to one, 67-66, led by part of Juice Thompson's team-high 17 points. The Wolverines knew letting a lead like that slip away, in a game they controlled throughout, could be devastating.
In what could have been the most critical 2 minutes, 20 seconds of the Michigan season, the Wolverines responded.
Morris made a free throw. Redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan made a layup after blocking a shot.
And then Morris threw an alley-oop to Morgan for the last of the forward’s career-high 27 points. It capped a 6-0 run that turned a one-point lead into a seven-point one, 73-66.
“A long time,” Morris said of how long he’s been waiting to throw an alley-oop to his roommate. “Nah, it was really great to convert one of those in a game to get the crowd involved and take the momentum.
“It’s been a little joke, because Coach Beilein always says how we don’t convert the lobs, but I can throw them. I saw him running to the rim and he was in the zone the whole game dunking and finishing layups, so I said I’m going to throw it up there.”
All season long, the Wolverines (15-10, 5-7 Big Ten) have made big late-game comebacks to either come close to a big win against Kansas or to steal one from an opponent on the road in that 65-62 win over Penn State on Sunday.
But Michigan hadn’t faced a flurry like that before so late in a game, where the Wolverines needed to hold on. Wins like that, like what Michigan did at the end of Wednesday’s game, show growth for a team.
Putting together runs like that are what teams ready for the postseason do.
Michigan and Northwestern entered the game as two teams with nearly identical records overall and both tied at 4-7 in the Big Ten.
Had Michigan lost Wednesday night, Northwestern (14-9, 4-8) would have swept the Wolverines for the second straight year.
“That win was huge,” sophomore guard Matt Vogrich said. “We’re trying to get back to .500 in the league, and we’re slowly working our way that.
“That win just brings us one game closer.”
Beilein doesn’t want to address talk of the NCAA tournament just yet. But everyone in Crisler Arena understood what this win could mean for Michigan.
“You get your fifth win in there and move up in that pack a little bit,” Beilein said. “It’s going to impact, if you get swept by Northwestern, and they are looking at two teams, well, Northwestern swept them, that’s the team.
“So if you make a run in the (Big Ten) tournament and don’t get to the championship game, you have to get some of these wins, if you don’t win the championship, you have to have these types of wins to back you up.”
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan basketball for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at (734) 623-2558, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow along on Twitter @mikerothstein