After a bad loss on the road in Bloomington earlier in the week, Saturday’s game against the Northwestern Wildcats was a must win for the Michigan Wolverines. The Wildcats have been particularly tough in Evanston this year, disposing of 3 of the conference’s top four teams (Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa) on their home floor. Early on, Northwestern’s Jitim Young looked ready to make his last game in Welsh Ryan arena count and make the Wolverine’s his team’s next victim, as he reeled off 7 straight points to give NW a 7-1 lead three minutes into the game. Michigan shot themselves back in it with 3-pointers from Daniel Horton and Dion Harris, but Young and the Cats maintained their offensive efficiency and had a 14-7 lead with 12 minutes left in the half.
Sensing his team needed a boost, Horton began to really assert himself offensively and scored 6 straight Wolverine points to key a 9-0 run and give the maize and blue a 16-14 lead with 9:30 remaining. “With Bernard and Lester in foul trouble, I had to step up and make plays,” Horton said. “Coach told me to attack their press and when we got a rebound he wanted me to push up the floor and make a play.” Mohamed Hachad stopped the bleeding for the Cats and tied the game at 16, but Michigan kept up the offensive pressure. The visitors outscored Northwestern 11-5 over the next 5 minutes by attacking the basket and pushed the score to 27-21 with 4:30 left. That’s when the Cats answered with a run of their own.
Jitim Young started the run with two strong drives to the basket that resulted in trips to the free throw line. They then got another lay-up from Hachad, but it was two subsequent 3-pointers by Vedran Vukusic that really got the crowd going and regained the lead for the Wildcats, 31-29. But just like earlier in the first half, Horton answered the bell when his team needed him. He nailed a huge 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to give the Wolverines a 32-31 lead at intermission.
Horton came out of the locker room and picked up right where he left off, nailing a lay-up for the first points of the half. The rest of the team gave the sophomore point guard a lot more help early on in this stanza as they keyed another big run to expand the lead. Lester Abram was fouled shooting a 3, converted all three free throws, and then nailed a 3-pointer a few minutes later as part of a 12-5 run that pushed the Wolverine lead to 8, at 46-38 with 14:00 minutes left in the game. Still the Cats would not go away.
Northwestern scored the game’s next six points to cut the lead to two. They had the chance the chance to re-take the lead, but in what became a recurring theme in the second half, they missed two straight three-pointers, giving Michigan the chance to pad the lead on a Chris Hunter lay-up. After shooting 36% (4/11) from long range in the first half, they shot only 1/12 from beyond the arc in the second half.
Despite their poor 3-point shooting they continued to keep pace with the Wolverines. A driving Daniel Horton fended them off once again when he found Bernard Robinson Jr. for a wide open trifecta as the shot clock was running down to give Michigan 53-46 lead with 4:20 remaining. That shot seemed as though it would be a back breaker, but the Cats kept their composure and responded with a 7-2 run over the next 3 minutes to cut the lead back to 2 at 55-53. The pressure swung back to the visiting Wolverines, and it seemed to be too much as Lester Abram came down and missed a jumper from the elbow. Fortunately for the maize and blue, freshman Courtney Sims had established excellent position down low and was their to put back the carom and push the lead back to four. The Wolverines were able to ice the game from the line with 4 straight free throws from Abram and 2 from Robinson Jr to escape Evanston with a 63-56 victory.
“It's a great win,” Tommy Amaker said after the game. “We know how tough it can be to get a win on the road with a lot on the line, and I thought our players came out and played with the toughness and poise to get the job done. We have been striving to do that all year and it was nice to do it on the road in this type of environment. It was a competitive game and both teams laid it all on the line. ... It was just a total team effort.”
On the game Daniel Horton led the Wolverines with 16 points and 4 assists, while Lester Abram finished with 14 points. Jitim Young finished his last game on his home floor with 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals. For the full boxscore, click here.
Michigan finished the Big Ten regular season with an 8-8 record (17-10 overall) which was good enough for a 5th place conference finish. Their efforts earned them a bye on the first day of tournament competition. Their first game will come Friday versus the 4th place Iowa Hawkeyes at 2:30 on ESPN.