EVANSTON, Ill. — Everyone in Welsh-Ryan Arena had seen the movie before.
The Northwestern faithful, quiet in the first half as Michigan rolled, returned to form and rocked the Wildcats’ new arena at the comeback that was brewing. Like a sitcom catchphrase or a wrestler’s theme music, the fans almost anticipated Michigan’s flurry of missed 3s and big-time shots from Dererk Pardon and Vic Law. Michigan fans in attendance, largely resigned to the upper deck, were no strangers to the Wolverines’ bricked 3s and agonizing fouls that kept Michigan from pulling away.
Northwestern’s home magic against Michigan is a tradition that predates the dazzling renovations at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It happened in 2015, when Michigan blew multiple double-digit leads in an eventual double-overtime loss. It happened in 2017, when the Wildcats had a 94-foot, buzzer-beating play to send Northwestern to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. This spring, the Wildcats eclipsed a 10-point deficit and held Michigan to 5-for-20 second-half shooting in a nine-point win.
So when Michigan missed 15 of 16 3s in the middle section of the game, scored nine points in 12:36 of game time in the second half and coughed up a 15-point lead, fans of both sides had a hunch for where things were headed.
Michigan hung around, and took a lead with just under two minutes to go. But when the Wolverines turned the ball over on their final two possession and gave Northwestern a chance down two with 11.1 seconds to go, the game once again appeared to be pre-written.
Instead, Ryan Taylor’s last-second 3 rimmed out, and Michigan survived. And no, the Wolverines don’t care if they were lucky or good, they got the win.
“The last two games here, in this arena, that bank shot goes in at the end,” Michigan coach John Beilein quipped after the game. “… I knew we were going to have to go through games like this if we’re going to be good, 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.’ “
So far this season, Michigan hasn’t had to do much sneaking. The Wolverines trailed Holy Cross at halftime, were down double-digits to North Carolina and were prodded at times against Providence. But the Wolverines always made a run, the their opponent often gave in. Through eight games, Michigan had not trailed for even three minutes in the second half, and had beaten every team by at least 17 points. The Wolverines’ lowest second-half win probability, according to KenPom.com, was 67.0 percent, when they only led North Carolina by four points.
Northwestern, however, was different. Whether it was attacking the Wolverines in the lane to get Michigan in foul trouble, using their length and footwork to close off paths to the basket or clutch shooting from their senior leaders, the Wildcats trailed plenty, but never fell out of striking distance, eventually striking with their first lead of the game with 6:232 to go in the game.
“They were hitting shots and we weren’t,” Ignas Brazdeikis said. “We had a bunch of open shots in the second half I feel like, but they weren’t falling, and then they started hitting crazy shots. The crowd was getting into it, the momentum was all theirs.”
“They punched us in the face in the second half.”
To say Michigan backed into its win over the Wildcats might be an understatement. The Wolverines never got a resounding run, did not score in the game’s final 90 seconds and scored just 11 points on 15 possessions in the game’s final 11:30 of play.
But like an overmatched boxer who dodged just enough punches late to hang on, Michigan came away with the win.
“Every game’s not going to be a cakewalk,” redshirt junior Charles Matthews said after the game. “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.”
Though Michigan never put the game away, the Wolverines were pleased with how they handled their first dose of adversity. Entering the huddle frustrated for perhaps the first time all season, Beilein saw a focused team that wanted to work, not point fingers or panic.
“I saw focus,” he said. “These guys had me and said ‘Okay coach, what’s the plan? Tell us the plan and we’re going to execute it.’ ”
While it sounds simple, that response is rare to find on the road in Big Ten games. With every school full of fans and players eyeing a marquee win over Michigan, the Wolverines have struggled in situations like Tuesday’s. With the win, John Beilein is now 42-58 (.420) in Big Ten road games, and 215-85 in all other games (.717). Michigan’s famed 2013 and 2018 national runner-up teams were 64-16 overall and 15-3 in postseason action, but were 9-9 in Big Ten road games.
Other challengers await in what appears to be a resurgent Big Ten, and Beilein is wary that Tuesday might be remembered differently.
“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,” Beilein said. “We have to make sure that this game resonates with us because there were so many things we can learn to do better.”
But for now, as Michigan improves to 9-0 for the sixth time in school history, it doesn’t matter. The Wolverines flipped the script and survived a weeknight in Evanston, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
“We won,” Matthews said. “We clearly handled it pretty well. That’s all that matters.”