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Michigan shakes slow start, blows past Northwestern to snap road skid

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — Michigan hasn’t had much success away from the confines of Crisler Center during Big Ten play.

Six-point setbacks at Maryland and Michigan State. A crushing overtime loss at Iowa. A blowout bashing at Penn State. One loss after another sent the Wolverines sliding down the conference standings and closer to .500.

But for the first time in nearly two months, Michigan prevailed on the road by overcoming a slow start on offense and riding a huge second-half run past Northwestern for a crucial 68-51 win on Thursday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 68, Northwestern 51

“It’s huge,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I really respect and appreciate those guys in the locker room for believing in one another, believing in the staff and then also trusting the process. No one said it's going to be easy. In our league, as you can see, there are a lot of teams that's fighting and clawing. From top to bottom, you're going to get their best each and every night.

“It's a big win for this team. It's great to see some smiles on their faces. They deserved it.”

Michigan guard Joey Baker (15) rebounds the ball against Northwestern guard Chase Audige (1) and forward Tydus Verhoeven, front right, during the first half on Thursday in Evanston, Ill.

Junior center Hunter Dickinson had 19 points, sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin added 15 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists and grad transfer wing Joey Baker scored 14 for Michigan (12-10, 6-5 Big Ten).

The Wolverines shot 55.6% in the second half (15-for-27), turned in a sound defensive effort and responded in a big way coming off Sunday’s lopsided loss to the Nittany Lions to snap a four-game skid in conference road games.

Michigan picked up the offensive production after a low-scoring first half and took control with a 29-8 flurry over a 10-minute stretch, turning a three-point deficit into an 18-point cushion. Dickinson knocked down two free throws and a hook shot to get things going. Baker swished a high-arcing 3-pointer while being fouled for a four-point play and drained a mid-range jumper on an inbounds play.

Dickinson threw down a two-handed jam through contact for a three-point play to push the lead to double digits. Junior forward Terrance Williams II splashed a 3-pointer and won the battle for a loose ball for a second-chance layup. Baker connected on another deep ball from the corner as the lead grew to 16.

“I feel like we were getting good looks in the first half, but they weren't going in,” Williams said of the second-half onslaught. “We converted more and started playing through the big fella (Dickinson) in the paint. He started eating and when he starts eating, it makes it easier for everybody else.”

Added Bufkin: “We weren't really worried about the shooting. We knew shots are going to fall eventually. It was more emphasis to keep going on defense.”

More:Michigan looks to pick up fast-break production: 'We have to get more in transition'

By the time Bufkin provided the exclamation point by picking off a pass and throwing down a thunderous, one-handed dunk in transition, the Wolverines held a commanding 55-37 lead with 8:19 remaining.

Michigan took its largest lead, 60-41, when freshman wing Jett Howard drained a 3-pointer at the 5:20 mark. From there, Michigan never let the lead dip below 15 points the rest of the way as it secured its first road win since Dec. 8 at Minnesota and stamped its first Quad 1 victory on its resume.

“We needed this win,” Baker said. “When you have your back up against the wall, you just kind of play a little differently. I think that happened tonight.”

Michigan forward Terrance Williams II (5) and Northwestern forward Tydus Verhoeven (10) battle for a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.

Boo Buie scored 23 and Chase Audige 10 for Northwestern (15-7, 6-5), which was playing for the fifth time in 11 days due to a pair of COVID-19 makeup games. The Wildcats shot 37.5% from the field (21-for-56) en route to scoring their second-fewest points in a contest this season.

"They (Michigan) came in here very determined. I thought they had a lot of energy. They were fresh, hungry. They did a lot of good things, especially in the second half," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.

"I didn't think we played very well in the first half and we were only down one, so we were trying to be positive about, 'Hey, let's get ourselves back on track, play a little bit better in the second half and we can maybe find a way to dig this one out.' We got the three-point lead and scored the first four points of the second half. From there, it went downhill."

Points were hard to come by in the first half. The Wolverines missed their first six shots and began 2-for-12 from the field. The Wildcats, looking like a team in the midst of a crammed stretch, missed seven of their first 10 shots over the opening eight minutes as the Wolverines made them work for their looks.

Neither team cracked double digits until Dickinson scored back-to-back baskets inside. He knocked down a hook shot and then made a quick move to break loose for a one-handed dunk to give Michigan a 10-8 advantage with 12:13 left in the first half.

As the game continued to slog along and both teams were far from firing on all cylinders, an eight-point boost from Michigan’s bench — highlighted by a 3-pointer and driving layup by Baker — extended the lead to 18-13 at the 8:05 mark.

The Wildcats managed to stay close thanks to Buie’s long-range shooting and pulled even twice before the Wolverines took a 26-25 edge at halftime and took over after the break.

“It's all about the mindset of staying positive,” Juwan Howard said. “You can have your head down because you worked so hard to get a bucket versus a very good defensive team, or you've worked so hard to get an open shot and you expect for it to go in. It's easy for you to put your head down, but the group did not.

“It was nice to see that they wanted to and continued to keep playing for the second half and knew that we will have a better half than what we had in the first half.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins