EVANSTON – Michigan’s game plan against Northwestern on Wednesday night was clear from the outset: make the most of a size advantage and attack the paint all night long.
The first five minutes of the contest made it clear that the plan needed some adjustment. The Wolverines went 0-for-8 attacking the rim over that stretch. Despite being significantly smaller, the Wildcats looked surprisingly solid defending the paint.
So Michigan changed its approach, looking more to the outside, searching for open shots and able shooters.
And there, in the steady hands of a pair of juniors, was the solution to Wednesday night’s problems. Forward Isaiah Livers and shooting guard Eli Brooks combined for 35 points, 10 rebounds and a fair number of electrifying shots, helping Michigan to a 79-54 win.
With Livers’ recent long-awaited return from a lingering groin injury, Michigan’s offense has been finding some of the energy and movement it had been lacking without him. Livers had 17 points Wednesday night, but he was also key in keeping the ball in motion on offense, in creating opportunities not just for himself, but for everyone.
“When I’m out there, I mean, yeah I try to get my shot, cause coach (Juwan) Howard tells me to be aggressive, but also, I’ve been able to move the ball,” Livers said. “If I’ve been on top, I’m trying to orchestrate, get (Jon Teske) the ball, try to swing it to Eli for a 3, get (Zavier Simpson) downhill, Franz (Wagner) doing what he does. I just — I know my players, so I know who to swing it to.”
But Livers is one of Michigan’s top talents, and with that mantle comes added pressure from opposing defenses. In situations where Livers can’t get open, Michigan turns to Brooks, who Livers refers to as “the silent assassin.” When the Wolverines get him an open shot, more often than not, the result is nothing but net. Often, it’s enough to shift the rhythm, the pace of the game back to Michigan.
When Northwestern started making a run late, the Wolverines needed something to swing the momentum back to them, something to stem the purple tide. So they looked to Brooks outside.
He buried it from the arc.
“That was huge,” Howard said. “Eli made that three when we’d been struggling to score, but more importantly, struggling to make a play. The three was huge. It gave us that momentum that we needed.”
Both players have proven themselves capable of making those kinds of poster-worthy, morale-boosting plays throughout the season. Late in Wednesday’s game, a resurgent Livers — still nursing the remnants of that nagging groin injury — couldn’t resist making one more.
He got the feed from sophomore point guard David DeJulius. The result: a massive, one-handed airborne dunk. The healthy Michigan crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena exploded. Livers — and the Wolverines they knew — were finally back.
“Every time I run down the middle, Dave is always giving it back to me,” Livers said, grinning. “I already knew. I’m there in my take-off zone, want to jump off one. I’m all good. No injuries. So it was exciting to get a dunk — two dunks — and finish a game.”