Evanston, Ill. — Moritz Wagner was watching helplessly on the sideline repeatedly saying, “Please, please, please don’t make it.”
Zak Irvin was near midcourt and thought the pass was going to sail out of bounds.
After a wild game in which Michigan overcame a miserable first half riddled with turnovers and misses, it left stunned as Northwestern pulled off a Hail Mary pass and made buzzer-beating layup for a 67-65 Wildcats victory Wednesday at a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“Those games, those hurt the most because we had the same thing in Minnesota where you look back and think coulda, shoulda, woulda, however that goes," said Wagner, who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds in a game that had major Big Ten and NCAA Tournament implications.
"If we made one more free throw, one less foul, one more switch, made one more shot, that's how it goes when you lose. Obviously it hurts that we lost on that last play, but it's not the last play...Those things happen. If we grab one more rebound in the first half and don't give up a 3, we win this game.”
Making the loss burn deeper for Michigan (19-11, 9-8 Big Ten) was after Irvin (12 points) made a layup to tie the score at 65 with 1:28 left, the Wolverines had two chances in the final minute to take the lead but came up empty both times.
The first came when Derrick Walton Jr. (15 points) drove down the lane late in the shot clock only to toss up a floater that was off the mark with 42 seconds left.
"They were running a play that I wanted to run, a play that broke down and the shot clock got low so I had to trust him at that point,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Walton’s attempt. “We could've reset and done something but I trust him when the shot clock went down and obviously he'd like to have that last shot back. But at that point he got to the rim several times so we thought he'd get there. He got hung up, he took a shot and it didn't go in."
Michigan coach talks about each team's final possession in Wednesday's 67-65 loss.
Then after another stop with 12 seconds left, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (13 points) corralled the rebound, raced down the court and passed it to Irvin on the wing. Irvin pulled the trigger on a 3-pointer but misfired and the ball went out of bounds off Michigan with 1.7 seconds left, giving Northwestern (21-9, 10-7) enough time for one final shot.
"We decided to go without a timeout and I knew there was a lot going on, but I had an opening to take the shot,” Irvin said. “Looking back on it, I didn't realize there was that much time left on the clock. I wish I would've drove the ball.”
Beilein said he wished Abdur-Rahkman would’ve kept going to the basket since Michigan was in the bonus, but he was content with Irvin’s decision.
“I could've called a timeout and we could've run something, but at the same time my feeling is 10 seconds to go, full court, let them play basketball,” Beilein said. “We did get a good shot and it would've been fantastic if Zak would've made that."
After both teams took a timeout to draw up their plans for the final play, Northwestern’s Nathan Taphorn inbounded the ball and threw it the length of the court over a leaping Mark Donnal, who was guarding along the baseline.
Sophomore center talks about the final play and atmosphere in Wednesday's 67-65 loss.
Walton and D.J. Wilson got caught up in a switch near midcourt, leaving Walton as the last line of defense against center Dererk Pardon, who had leaked behind Walton and Wilson and was breaking toward the rim.
Pardon made an over-the-shoulder catch, avoided Walton as he flew by and laid it up off the glass before time expired, triggering a wild court-storming celebration and likely sealing Northwestern's first NCAA Tournament trip in program history.
"I thought I could've made a play on the ball but I was in the midst of backpedal and it was a really good pass," Walton said. "It was a tough angle to score and he made it and that's all the difference in the game.
"It's March. It's definitely what March has in the cards. Some miraculous plays are made and it's tough being on the other side of it."
After Michigan trailed by 11 and closed the first half with a momentum-changing 12-3 run to pull within two at halftime, Northwestern turned the tide as the Wolverines’ defense offered little resistance to start the second half. The Wildcats opened 5-for-8 from the field, highlighted by 3-pointers by Vic Law (18 points) and Bryant McIntosh (13 points), to extend their lead to 42-36 with 16:39 remaining.
Senior forward talks about his final shot and Northwestern's winning layup in Wednesday's 67-65 loss.
While the defense lagged, Michigan’s offense erupted and traded blows with Northwestern. Walton and Abdur-Rahkman hit back-to-back 3-pointers before Walton found Abdur-Rahkman in transition for a one-handed slam to cut it to 45-44 roughly two minutes later.
Walton added a step-back 3-pointer from the corner and four-point play to pull Michigan even at 52 with 11:39 to play.
After Abdur-Rahkman converted a layup for a 60-58 lead with 5:56 to play, Michigan caught a couple breaks as Northwestern missed the front end of two one-and-ones but couldn’t add to the lead.
The Wildcats eventually ended a seven-minute drought without a field goal on Scottie Lindsey’s layup to tie it at 60 at the 3:57 mark, setting up the frantic finish that featured four lead changes, a costly lane violation by Walton and plenty of second-guessing.
“That's a tough one to swallow,” Irvin said. “We knew the winner of this game really solidified themselves in the (NCAA) Tournament and that's really what we wanted to do tonight. I thought we fought hard, just unfortunately at the end the ball didn't bounce our way."