EVANSTON, Ill. — When it came down to the last shot, No. 5 Michigan basketball turned to what it knows best.
The Wolverines forced Northwestern into an off-balance 3-pointer that clanged off the iron, giving Michigan a 62-60 victory, and its first road win against the Wildcats since 2013.
“I knew we were gonna have to go through games like this if we’re gonna be good,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And we survived it. I don’t know how. But we made just enough good plays down the stretch.”
With 16:13 left in the second half, Northwestern went on a 15-2 run to cut Michigan’s lead to two.
Later, a 9-0 run gave the Wildcats a three-point lead with 5:47 remaining.
The crowd was rocking. Michigan (9-0, 2-0 Big Ten) hadn’t scored in nearly six minutes. The Wolverines’ perfect record looked in danger.
It was the first taste of adversity for the Wolverines, who entered Welsh-Ryan Arena with an average margin of victory of 21.3 points.
“Every game’s not going to be a cakewalk,” said redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews. “We understand we might be spoiled a bit from these early wins, we’ve been winning by (a lot). We were really able to stick it in there.”
How did the Wolverines handle it?
“We won,” Matthews said. “We clearly handled it pretty well. That’s all that matters.”
Michigan, playing at a renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena for the first time, quieted the crowd with an early run. The Wolverines flirted with a blowout, stretching their lead to double-digits several times in the first half.
The Wildcats’ two veteran leaders kept them in it.
Center Dererk Pardon scored 16 first-half points, and forward Vic Law Jr. hit several tough shots, including a step-back 3 from NBA range at the halftime buzzer to cut Michigan’s lead to 36-30.
Both teams exited the locker room having made adjustments.
The Wolverines started doubling Pardon whenever he received the ball down low, stymying Northwestern’s attack. That led to a 9-0 Michigan run that pushed the lead to 15.
But Matthews and junior center Jon Teske picked up their third fouls and headed to the bench. The Wildcats ripped off a large run to pull within two. When Teske returned, the game had flipped. And it remained close until the final buzzer.
Northwestern found success on defense by playing off of junior point guard Zavier Simpson, who scored eight points in the first half on 4-for-4 shooting, all near the rim.
With his driving lanes gone, Simpson was left open behind the 3-point line. And he couldn’t take advantage of the space.
Simpson missed 3s on three consecutive possessions as the Wildcats surged into the lead.
He exited the game for sophomore backup guard Eli Brooks with 6:24 left.
Soon after, the game headed to overdrive. The teams traded points on five consecutive possessions.
Ignas Brazdeikis, who scored a game-high 23 points, hit a tying 3. Northwestern went down low to Pardon. Brooks hit an open 3 from the top of the arc. Law scored off the dribble. Brazdeikis was fouled hard and split a pair of free throws.
It was the first time all season Michigan found itself sparring with an opponent at the end of a game instead of clearing out the bench.
“They were hitting shots when we weren’t,” Brazdeikis said. “I felt like we had a bunch of open shots in the second half, and they weren’t falling. And then they started to hit crazy shots. The crowd was getting into it, the momentum was all theirs, but we got it back real quick.”
Michigan scored its second-to-last basket off a turnover. Then it dialed up something for Jordan Poole, who drove into the lane and threw down the winning dunk for two of his 15 points.
Neither team scored over the final 1:53.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins called timeout with 11 seconds left, and drew up the final play. The last shot, he explained later, was supposed to go to either Law or Ryan Taylor, who were hanging out on the perimeter.
Teske hedged hard when the Wildcats brought a high ball screen for AJ Turner. He poked the ball loose at the top of the arc. When Taylor got it, he was forced to throw up a running 3.
A tough shot. Maybe even a prayer. Against Northwestern, Michigan couldn’t be sure until the ball hit off the backboard, caught the rim and fell harmlessly onto the court.
“The last two games here, in this arena, that bank shot goes in at the end,” Beilein said.
Michigan shot 5-for-20 on 3-point attempts and turned the ball over nine times, including twice in the final 1:20. Nothing unusual for a team that lost on the road to Northwestern the past two seasons.
Tuesday, though, the Wolverines absorbed Northwestern’s blows and handed them right back.
It’s the first week of December, but Michigan learned the type of lessons that will be helpful down the road.
“It was really hostile out there. The crowd was really into it, and 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 showed how tough we are.”
Contact Orion Sang: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang.