Ann Arbor — Coming off one of its best offensive performances of the season, Michigan hit a roadblock against Northwestern.
The Wolverines were slowed by the Wildcats’ matchup zone and the 3-point misses piled up at an alarming rate throughout a woeful first half.
Eventually, No. 24 Michigan was able to find enough cracks in Northwestern's defense and lean on its own to pull out a 58-47 win Monday at Crisler Center.
Charles Matthews had 14 points and seven rebounds and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 11 for Michigan (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten), which shot 42 percent (21-for-50) from the field and 28 percent (7-for-25) from 3-point range.
“I did not think after the first 10 minutes of that game we'd be walking out with a 'W,’” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They have been playing really good basketball. Now they're playing zone defense, which he hadn't seen since some of us were in Hawaii…I was very concerned about this game trying to replicate what they were doing. It's not a traditional Syracuse type of zone.
“They punched us in the mouth in the beginning and it took us a while to get used to it. Really pleased that we came back and we made some shots, but this whole game should be about our defense. It was exceptional.”
After using a 10-0 run to take a two-point lead at halftime, Michigan picked up right where it left off and started to dial in from 3-point range after a poor shooting performance over the first 20 minutes.
Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole and Moritz Wagner (eight points, eight rebounds) each hit from deep as Michigan made three of its first four 3-point attempts of the half to pull ahead, 32-24, with 16:21 remaining.
Northwestern countered with a 6-0 run in a 90-second span that ended with a Vic Law jumper to cut it to two before Matthews knocked down another 3-pointer and had a steal and dunk to give Michigan a 39-32 advantage with 11:34 to go.
The Wildcats managed to pull within three on a 3-pointer from Aaron Falzon at the 10:12 mark before the Wolverines locked down to force a five-minute scoring drought.
Michigan's coach talks about his team's performance during Monday's 58-47 win at Crisler Center. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
That led to a 7-0 Michigan run — with five points from Wagner on a dunk, jumper and free throw — and a 48-38 lead with 5:24 remaining, which proved to be more than enough on a night where offense was hard to come by.
Zavier Simpson, Duncan Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman combined to go 8-for-10 from the free-throw line in the final 3:18 to salt the game away.
Scottie Lindsey finished with 15 points for Northwestern (13-10, 4-6), which had 16 turnovers that led to 16 Michigan points, shot 25 percent (4-for-16) on 3-pointers and has lost seven straight in Ann Arbor.
“I think we've had a lot of close games this year, so it's definitely nothing new to the new guys or anybody on the team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. "Shots weren't falling so we knew we had to pick up the defense and we just picked up the intensity a little bit more and it eventually turned into offense.”
Michigan struggled to find its offense and was out of sorts early on. The Wolverines missed eight of their first 10 shots, seven coming from 3-point range, while Northwestern opened 6-for-8 from the field. Sprinkle in scoring droughts of three and six minutes for Michigan and it all added up to a 14-5 deficit with 13:02 left in the first half.
While Michigan continued to struggle to get out in transition and shoot Northwestern out of its zone by missing 10 of its first 11 3-point attempts, the Wildcats weren’t able to capitalize on the Wolverines’ horrendous shooting.
Instead, Michigan’s defense tightened up as Northwestern closed the half with a 2-for-16 shooting stretch, six turnovers and five points over the final 13 minutes.
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman talks about the team's offensive struggles and stellar defense in Monday's 58-47 win. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Michigan was able to take advantage down the stretch and used a 10-0 run to take a 21-19 lead into the break. Abdur-Rahkman capped the low-scoring half with a layup in transition and a 3-pointer to give Michigan a two-point edge despite shooting a dismal 20 percent (3-for-15) from beyond the arc.
The two teams will meet again in eight days for the second game of the home-and-home series at Allstate Arena.
“I thought that was a grinder of a Big Ten game,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “Points were hard to come by, I think, on both teams. Really, I thought the game got away from us in the first half. At 14-5, they were having a real hard time scoring against us and we couldn't extend that lead.
“We hold them to 21 (in the first half) — we needed to be up double figures at half, especially on the road when you know they're going to make adjustments and be better in the second half.”