'We survived': Michigan hangs on to edge Northwestern
Evanston, Ill. — Heartbreak and heartache.
That’s all Michigan has known its last three visits to Northwestern, all painful losses in their own respective ways.
The No. 5 Wolverines were staring at another possible gut-wrencher, letting a 15-point second-half lead slip away and giving the Wildcats a shot to win it with 11 seconds left at their newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
"If anybody has witnessed the last two games here in this arena," Michigan coach John Beilein said, "that bank shot goes in at the end."
But this time it didn't as Ryan Taylor's last-second 3-pointer clanked off the backboard and rim. And for the first time since 2013, Michigan finally found good fortune in Evanston after hanging on for a nail-biting 62-60 win Tuesday night in its Big Ten road opener.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis finished with 23 points — none bigger than the 3-pointer that ended a 9-0 Northwestern run and tied the game with 5 minutes, 22 seconds left during a back-and-forth finish — for Michigan (9-0, 2-0 Big Ten).
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole added 15 points and scored what proved to be the winning basket with 1:53 remaining for the Wolverines, who were tested in the final minutes for the first time all season and have won 23 of 24 since their last regular-season loss, which coincidentally came on the road against Northwestern on Feb. 6.
"This was something that didn't worry me. It's part of the process and I knew we were going to have to go through games like this if we're going to be good," Beilein said. "We survived it. I don't know how, but we made just enough good plays down the stretch.
"I'm really pleased to sneak out of here with a 'W.'"
After leading by as much as 12 points in the first half, Michigan threatened to make Northwestern its latest double-digit victim, scoring the first nine points of the second half to go up 45-30 with 17:19 to go.
Northwestern didn't flinch and swung back with a 15-2 run over a three-minute stretch where junior center Jon Teske and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews were both on the bench due to foul trouble. By the time the flurry ended, the Wildcats had stole all the momentum and chopped the deficit to 47-45 with 13:16 remaining.
The Wolverines weathered the storm and momentarily calmed things when Teske (eight points, 10 rebounds) checked back in. Back-to-back layups from junior guard Zavier Simpson (10 points, five assists) and Brazdeikis helped give Michigan some breathing room with a six-point cushion.
But adversity knocked again when shots stopped falling for Michigan over a six-minute stretch and Northwestern roared back with a 9-0 run. The Wildcats took their first lead of the game, 52-51, at the 6:32 mark following back-to-back 3-pointers by Vic Law to put the Wolverines in an unfamiliar late-game situation.
"They punched us in the face in the second half," Brazdeikis said. "We got knocked down, but I feel like this game brought us more together. I feel like we grew a lot and it shows how tough we are.
"X is a great leader and he was just telling us to calm down (in the huddle). This is what we're built for. We're not going to blow every single team out, so we were just ready for the moment and we did what we did."
After A.J. Turner capped Northwestern's spurt with a jumper to make it a three-point game, Brazdeikis stepped up and buried a momentum-killing 3-pointer to tie it at 54 with 5:22 left to play.
It set up a frenzied finish where the teams traded the lead four times before Michigan regained it when Poole blew by a defender and threw down a one-handed dunk to make it 62-60 with 1:53 remaining.
Despite getting back-to-back stops on defense, Michigan couldn't put the game away. It committed two turnovers in the final 1:20, the second on a shot-clock violation with 14 seconds left, to give Northwestern one last chance.
But Michigan's defense stiffened on Northwestern’s final possession. After Teske nearly stripped the ball away from Turner atop the key, Taylor was forced to put up a contested shot well behind the 3-point line that caromed off the rim.
"We didn't get scrambled. I feel like a team can easily get scrambled being in a situation like this for the first time, but we had a lot of vets out there on the court, guys who have been in this situation last year," Poole said of the final frantic minutes. "We didn't get rattled. We just executed and they're weren't pressuring us on the ball in order to get a steal, so were able to run our stuff a little bit in the last two minutes. But it really came down to stops and execution.
"Me and Charles made a great switch (on the final play) on Vic Law and then he was able to get (Ryan) Taylor to pump fake and I was able to contest the last-second shot. We go through situations like this in practice all the time and we were prepared."
Dererk Pardon finished with 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting to lead Northwestern (6-3, 0-2). Law added 19 points and was 4-for-8 from 3-point range, highlighted by a step-back 3 right before halftime that cut Michigan's lead to 36-30 at the break.
"Every other team that has played this team when they made a push on them like they did to get to 15 points, every other team that has played them has laid down and lost by 25 to 30. And our guys wouldn't do that," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "They stuck together, they kept fighting. Pardon goes down with an injury (late in second half) and we still fight back, take the lead, get it to the last two minutes against what a lot of (people) feel is the best team in the country and we got a shot in the air to win the game."
After years of agonizing outcomes at Northwestern, Michigan finally got the type of the result it wanted.
But more importantly, the Wolverines finally received the type of test they haven't had this season.
"That's what we needed to have," Beilein said. "Sometimes you're going to get better both ways. Somehow we got to make sure that this 'W' today does make us better because we could've very well lost that game.
"Our film sessions, our practice attitude, it's generally going to be different after a win or a loss. I'm not proud to say that, but it's a fact. People don't like to lose, we don't like to lose, our kids don't like to lose. But we have to make sure that this game resonates with us because there were so many things we can learn to do better."