Ann Arbor — It wasn't a pretty win, but with the struggles Michigan has had offensively, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In a seesaw game that saw the Wolverines with an 18-0 run in the first half but trail at halftime, they gutted out the second half without two of their regulars.
With an unlikely shot from an unlikely hero, UM withstood a late surge and took a 56-54 win over Northwestern on Saturday night in front of a packed crowd at Crisler Center, which included football coach Jim Harbaugh, his coaching staff and some recruits.
Freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who got his first career start after Spike Albrecht sat out because of an upper-respiratory infection, hit a critical 3-pointer with 57.7 seconds left and the Wolverines (11-7, 4-2 Big Ten) held on for their seventh straight win over Northwestern.
Caris LeVert had 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists and Derrick Walton Jr. added 14 points and five rebounds for UM. Abdur-Rahkman finished with a career-high nine points and five rebounds.
But LeVert went down late in the game and suffered what coach John Beilein said could be a sprained ankle. His status is unclear for Tuesday's game at Rutgers.
"It was a wide-open jump shot and coaches always tell us to shoot with confidence and when you're open like that, you have to take the shot," said Abdur-Rahkman, who had totaled nine points in 66 minutes in 14 games this season. "It felt good but the previous jump shot went in and out, so I had no idea."
With Albrecht out, Abdur-Rahkman played 26 minutes, including the final few minutes. It was yet another contribution from a freshman in a big game, along with Aubrey Dawkins against Illinois, Kam Chatman against Syracuse and Ricky Doyle versus Minnesota.
Beilein said he and the coaching staff gave Abdur-Rahkman the start because it meant fewer shifts for the other players in the rotation.
"We looked at it all and talked about it for about a half hour as a staff the day before when we thought it was a possibility," Beilein said. "We made a change to play smaller and we would also be changing back in two weeks. Let's just see what he can do and we can change going forward."
Abdur-Rahkman started with a basket in the first two minutes and had another during Michigan's 18-0 run during a stretch of 6½ minutes in the first half. LeVert started the streak with a triple and a jumper and Irvin had three free throws. Abdur-Rahkman finished with a jumper and Chatman added with a basket to make it 25-11 at the 9:44 mark.
Northwestern (10-8, 1-4) worked its way back with an 11-2 spurt over the next four minutes, as Alex Olah (22 points, seven rebounds) had a three-point play. That started a string of 11 straight Wildcats points for Olah. Vic Law hit a jumper just before halftime and Northwestern had a 32-31 lead at halftime.
Olah, a 7-foot center, gave UM problems, with Ricky Doyle playing only 10 minutes because of an illness similar to Albrecht's. That left Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt to guard Olah and Michigan had to come up with other defenses to help keep him in check.
"We changed defenses. We played almost exclusively (1-3-1) zone, so we had a man down on him and a backside guy and we could have more pressure on the ball," Beilein said. "We couldn't stop him down low.
"He's got two freshmen, Ricky and Mark, he's picking on, and an undersized center. He was just too much and we had to play zone, and that's what helped us."
Olah also had Northwestern's first five points of the second half, but only had four for the rest of the game.
The Wolverines tied it at 39 on a jumper and a 3-pointer by Bielfeldt with 13:15 left and knotted it again at 45 on Abdur-Rahkman's basket with 8:17 remaining.
They took the lead for good after LeVert got a scoop in the lane with 5:04 left and Irvin followed with a 3-pointer to make it a four-point lead.
The Wildcats' Scottie Lindsey hit a 3-pointer to cut it to one, but Abdur-Rahkman hit his biggest shot of the season with just under a minute remaining. Olah hit another basket, but Michigan got a stop on Bryant McIntosh on the final possession to preserve the win.
Beilein said the contribution by Abdur-Rahkman is unexpected, but he's looking to build on it, especially with depth becoming an issue.
"I hope that's the direction we're going. The development of our depth is a huge piece of the puzzle — and it's not there," Beilein said. "That was a step today that Muhammad has been there, done that one time."