Before tonight, the fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines (8-0, 2-0) had just beaten its third ranked team in a row, a 19-point beatdown of Carsen Edwards and Purdue. The Wolverines were playing like the hottest team in the nation, and another blowout appeared to be in store against the Wildcats, reeling from a close loss at Indiana last Saturday. As fate and Dererk Pardon (20 PTS, 5 REB) would have it, Northwestern (6-3, 0-2) played up to Michigan’s caliber, coming back from a 15 point deficit before losing a 62-60 nail-biter on a missed Ryan Taylor (9 PTS) three-pointer at the buzzer.
Michigan got off to a quick start behind last year’s March Madness hero Jordan Poole (15 PTS), who scored the game’s first five points, and Jon Teske (8 PTS, 10 REB), who has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat after an offseason under John Beilein's offseason tutelage. Michigan’s well-rounded offensive explosiveness was apparent within the first few minutes, as the Wolverines combined some Jordan Poole threes with Teske post moves. The Wildcats, down 14-7 early in the match, began to find more of an offensive groove behind Pardon, who finished with 16 points on 7 for 8 shooting and four rebounds in the first half alone. Isolated against Teske on the low block, Pardon took advantage of his speed advantage to cut inside and bully around Teske — of Pardon’s 16, 13 came against Teske. The Wolverines, however, began the game 7 of 10 from the field, including 6 of 6 on free throws behind Poole and Teske.
Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (10 PTS, 5 AST) hit a pair of baby hooks to increase the Michigan lead at around the 16 minute mark, but the Wildcat perimeter D began to clamp down and force Michigan into turnovers, contested triples, and poor shot selection along the baseline as the ‘Cats stormed back to cut the deficit to three behind three made shots in a row culminating in a timely Vic Law (19 PTS, 7 REB) triple.
As the half wound down, Michigan’s offensive dominance emerged, but sputtered at key moments. Freshman star Ignas Brazdeikis (23 PTS, 4 REB) finally got going, hitting three shots in a row to key a 31-21 lead. Paired with their perimeter stinginess, the ‘Cats couldn’t get much from the perimeter, and were liable to turnovers from Brazdeikis, Simpson, Charles Matthews (6 REB), and the rest of Michigan’s guards. Even so, Northwestern kept climbing back; A Law buzzer-beater three led to a slim 36-30 advantage for the Wolverines.
The ‘Cats began the second half with Law in foul trouble with three fouls, and Michigan deciding to double Pardon whenever he got the ball down low. Forced to take perimeter, shots, Northwestern came out of the half cold, and Michigan’s Brazdeikis asserted himself with an and-one lay in and a tip, pushing the Michigan lead to as much as 15. The game changed, however, once Teske was called for an illegal screen and was sent to the bench with his third foul. With Austin Davis in at center, the ‘Cats began chipping away at the Wolverine’s lead.
A Michigan turnover led to AJ Turner (7 PTS, 5 AST) hitting two free throws. A Vic Law and-1 bunny in front of the basket bought Northwestern within seven, and an Anthony Gaines (6 REB) put back followed immediately afterward. The series of plays climaxed with Turner taking advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy Michigan ball-handling by receving an outlet pass from Barret Benson to drive for an and-one lay-in to put the ‘Cats down 2.
Michigan’s offense turned to Brazdeikis down the stretch, but the freshman was unable to stop Northwestern from taking the lead with around seven minutes to go; Vic Law hit a pair of threes to give Northwestern their first lead of the game.
The atmosphere immediately became the most tense it’s been this season. Both squads finished the game with a wild back and forth that began with a Brazdeikis triple and concluded with 14.2 seconds left, when Northwestern forced a shot clock violation. Collins drew up a final play, but Brazdeikis caught Turner off his guard, and he fumbled a pass to Taylor, whose erratic shooting carried into his final shot of the match, a contested three pointer from nearly-NBA distance which rimmed out and preserved a Michigan victory.
This is the second-straight heartbreaker for the ‘Cats, but they showed tenacity and grit in coming back from a 15-point second half deficit against the #5 team in the country, that had previously won all of its games by over an 18 point margin. Northwestern had its share of growing pains; Ryan Taylor is still chucking up too many ill-advised threes, the offense struggles when either Pardon or Law are out, and the guard play is still susceptible to too many turnovers against good defenses. It’s difficult to take any solace in a loss, but Northwestern is slowly but surely bringing together the pieces of a competitive squad in the most competitive conference in the country.
Northwestern returns to Welsh-Ryan to face off against DePaul on Dec. 8th at 11 a.m.