After hanging for 35 minutes and looking destined to finally score a quality victory, Northwestern (17-11, 5-10 Big Ten) failed to stop Michigan (20-9, 10-6) down the stretch en route to a 72-63 loss.
Northwestern had the lead for the majority of the game, but Michigan's offense ignited in the closing stages of the second half. Northwestern certainly left Ann Arbor with a sense of regret after the 73-62 loss. Despite playing well, the Wildcats' slim NIT hopes have most likely faded away barring a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan, on the other hand, avoided a loss that might have put them on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Northwestern came out blazing-hot from the field to start the game and opened on a 10-0 run. The offensive success continued, with Alex Olah leading Northwestern to a 17-6 with 11 minutes to go in the half. The offense looked crisper than it had all season, creating good ball movement and getting good looks. Northwestern also looked much better defensively, switching to a man-to-man scheme that was able to limit Michigan in the early going. Michigan struggled shooting the ball early, but the Wolverines quickly battled back to cut the deficit to 19-17.
Northwestern was able to hang onto the lead thanks to threes from Olah, Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh. Despite entering the game 12th in the nation in three-point point percentage, Michigan was unable to hit a three until its final shot of the half. Duncan Robinson, a 47.1 percent three-point shooter, went just 1 for 4 from beyond the arc in the first half. However, his first three-pointer was a pivotal one, coming at the conclusion of the half and bringing Michigan back to within 1 point. Northwestern's backcourt combo of McIntosh and Demps only managed 3 points in the opening period.
McIntosh started the second half with his first points of the game on a tough midrange jumper. Northwestern's offense returned to its early form, generating two three-pointers for Aaron Falzon to push the lead to 9. But Michigan was again able to keep the game close as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman jumpstarted Michigan's offense in the second half. Michigan center Mark Donnal did a good job of drawing defenders to the basket, allowing Walton Jr. and Abdur-Rakhman to get separation and bring the Wolverines back into the game. Then Aubrey Dawkins hit two three-pointers to level the game at 44. Michigan then took its first lead of the game with just under 10 minutes to go.
The game ricocheted back and forth as both teams traded buckets for the next five minutes. Northwestern was largely cool under pressure on the road, as Michigan was unable to pull away after mounting its big comeback. Northwestern's defense got into foul trouble early which allowed the Wolverines to play in the double bonus for the last 8 minutes of the game. Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins continued to hit big shots for Michigan and the Wolverines were able to take a 6-point lead with under three minutes remaining. Demps hit a three to cut it down to a one possession game, but Michigan scored 4 consecutive points to put the lead back to 7. Northwestern was unable to mount a miracle comeback and Michigan closed the game out on free throws.
Olah (19), Demps (14) and Falzon (14) carried the scoring load for Northwestern. Bryant McIntosh, who has struggled to score in conference play, managed only 4 points but he dished out 7 assists. Gavin Skelly provided 8 energetic points from the bench, but it was not enough to overcome Michigan.
Northwestern will hope to improve on last year's 6-12 Big Ten record as the Wildcats head into the final three games of the season. A reprieve should be on the way, as Northwestern's next game is at home against historically terrible Rutgers on Sunday.
Northwestern can't escape foul trouble
While it did not seem like a big deal when Northwestern had a large lead, the Wildcats committed some unnecessary fouls early in the second half that eventually allowed Michigan to play for 10 minutes in the bonus. Michigan shot 25 free throws in this game and made 20, which should be expected from a team that is 38th in the country in free throw percentage this season. Michigan does not usually get to the line this often, but its above-average free throw shooters were perfectly willing to make Northwestern pay. Defensively, Northwestern had trouble staying in front of Michigan players in the interior due to foul trouble, and the team committed several fouls 90 feet from the basket that instantly turned into easy scoring opportunities for Michigan.
Is Bryant McIntosh losing steam late in the season again?
McIntosh had just 4 points on 2 of 7 shooting against Michigan, which marks the fourth time in the last eight games that McIntosh has scored 4 points. Northwestern generally needs at least average production from its backcourt to win games, even when everything else is going well. In this game, McIntosh struggled to create his own shot and only got to the line once. While he was able to get 7 assists, his overall offensive performance was disappointing.
Last year, McIntosh fell off substantially at the tail end of Big Ten play. Thus far, the problem seems to have resurfaced to a lesser extent in his sophomore season, as his points per game has dropped steadily ever since the midway point of conference play. McIntosh continues to shoot just 26 percent from three in Big Ten play and his free throw rate has dropped to 16.8. McIntosh has retained his ability to distribute the ball, as was the case last year, but he hasn’t been the reliable scoring option that Northwestern needs down the stretch.
Alex Olah From Three?
Alex Olah has attempted 11 threes in his last two games. He’s made two of them. While every 7-foot European center would like to hit threes like Kristaps Porzingis, Alex Olah probably should not be heaving three-pointers at will during games. Olah was fantastic in the paint, going 7 for 11 from 2-point range, but some of his three-point attempts killed Northwestern’s momentum at times.