A hot start gave Northwestern an early double-digit lead. But a cold finish meant a loss Wednesday night in Ann Arbor.
The Wildcats had a 13-point first-half lead on the hosting Michigan Wolverines and were ahead by as many as nine in the second half. But Northwestern went four and a half minutes without a basket in the middle of the second half and was nearly doubled up, 20-9, over the game's final five minutes as Michigan dug out a 72-63 win.
It would have been something had the Cats been able to hang on to even a bit of that big early lead. Alex Olah was cooking at game's start, and his sixth and seventh points of the game's first first seven minutes put Northwestern ahead, 17-4. That edge didn't last long, though, as the Wolverines answered with 10 straight points, part of a larger 13-2 run that made it a two-point game with seven minutes before half. Michigan battled cold shooting and missed its first eight 3-point tries, but Duncan Robinson's buzzer-beating triple was a sign of things to come and sliced the Northwestern lead all the way down to one at halftime.
The Cats then had a mini explosion out of the break with eight points, getting a pair of triples from Aaron Falzon that sent the lead out to nine in the opening two and a half minutes of the second half. But again that margin was whittled right down by the Wolverines, with back-to-back 3-pointers from Aubrey Dawkins making it a one-point game, then tying the game at 44 with a little more than 11 minutes to go. Michigan couldn't capitalize too much on that long basket-less stretch by Northwestern, and Gavin Skelly's 3 with seven and a half minutes to play put the Cats back in front. The teams swapped leads from there, but Michigan finally took off with five minutes to play. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman tied the game at 54, and Dawkins followed with another triple, one that proved back-breaking. After Derrick Walton Jr. and Bryant McIntosh traded layups, Abdur-Rahkman's bucket with under three minutes to play gave the Wolverines a five-point lead that wouldn't get smaller than three and grew as big as 11 as Michigan hit nine free throws in the final three minutes, Northwestern going 1-for-8 from the field over that same closing stretch.
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Both teams shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, Michigan edging Northwestern in overall shooting on the night, 49 percent vs. 46.3 percent. The Wolverines hit just four 3-pointers, three coming from Dawkins, and the Cats hit eight. But Michigan had a monstrous advantage at the free-throw line, going 20-for-25 from the stripe as opposed to Northwestern's 5-for-9 night. The Wolverines won on the glass, 33-24, and owned the paint, outscoring the Cats there, 32-18.
Abdur-Rahkman was the high man for Michigan with 19 points, going 8-for-14 from the field. Walton had 16 points and six rebounds, and Dawkins finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
Olah scored 14 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. Demps and Falzon each finished with 14 points.
Northwestern has now dropped eight of its last 10 games, falling to 17-11 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten after Wednesday's defeat. Three games remain against beatable opponents — Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska — if the Cats want to finish the regular season on a high note and improve their seed in the conference tournament.
Meanwhile, though a win over Northwestern doesn't mean much on Michigan's NCAA tournament resume, the Wolverines kept their tourney hopes afloat with the win, which improved their record to 20-9 overall and 10-6 in the league. Michigan has two tough ones to end the regular-season schedule: Sunday at Wisconsin and the following weekend against Iowa.