EVANSTON — Down by just two points with 1:28 remaining in the game, senior wing Zak Irvin cut through the lane and drove to the basket. He missed the first attempt, but then grabbed his own rebound and laid it off the glass to tie the game at 65 and silence the Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd.
On the ensuing possession, Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh had two chances to win the game, but he missed both jump shots, and junior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman grabbed the rebound with just 12 seconds left in regulation. He threw the ball up the court and it landed in Irvin’s hands with the game on the line again.
But Irvin rushed the shot attempt from deep 3-point range, and the ball clanged off the rim. There were still 1.7 seconds left on the clock.
“I didn’t realize there was that much time left on the clock,” Irvin said. “I wish I just drove the ball.”
The Wildcats called a timeout, and with one last attempt to end the game in regulation, they threw a full-court pass to center Dererk Pardon. Pardon caught the ball in motion — just past the outstretched arms of senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. — and laid it up as the buzzer sounded to all but send Northwestern into the NCAA Tournament and its fans into an on-court frenzy.
“I thought he overthrew it,” Irvin said. “He made a heck of a catch, like the perfect pass.”
The road hasn’t been a friendly place to the Michigan men’s basketball team this season, as the Wolverines had just two wins away from Crisler Center entering the contest Wednesday. In a pivotal matchup against Northwestern (10-7 Big Ten, 21-9 overall) — the two teams were tied for sixth place in the conference — Michigan (9-8, 19-11) suffered its most demoralizing road loss of the season, falling in heartbreaking fashion, 67-65.
“Congratulate them,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That was a big win to get that 10th win in this league, which is terrific. For us, our kids are devastated right now. Because we fought so hard to stay in the game, get ahead in the game.
“We just had some unusual things happen, and then you end up losing the game that way.”
The tide seemed to be swaying the Wildcats’ way starting in the first half, as Northwestern bossed the Wolverines around the paint and drove to the basket with ease. In a two-minute stretch early in the stanza, McIntosh went straight at Walton — who couldn’t stop the Wildcat standout from cutting straight to the rim — and went on a personal 6-0 run to give his team a 12-7 lead.
Northwestern doubled that lead later in the half, breaking the game open with a 7-0 run from 5:43 to 3:54 in the frame. The Wildcats had just taken a 27-16 advantage, and looked likely to keep piling on the points.
But the final four minutes were an entirely different story, as the Wolverines finally found their shooting stroke.
Michigan responded with a 7-0 run of its own to cut the lead down to four. Zak Irvin started the offensive spurt, making moves on his man before setting himself up for a trademark jump shot. Freshman guard Xavier Simpson, who had entered the game to provide Walton with some defensive relief, then executed a swipe-and-score, before redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson nailed an open three to help Michigan narrow the score to 30-28 at the halftime break.
The second half became a battle of big shots, as both sides heated up from the perimeter.
McIntosh opened the stanza with a triple and then a jumper, and forward Vic Law followed the same formula to open up a 42-36 lead. But then six quick points from Abdur-Rahkman and a couple of 3-pointers from Walton gave the Wolverines their first lead of the game at 48-47.
From there, a back-and-forth battle ensued, as neither side had more than a four-point advantage down the stretch. Both teams kept the score at a tight margin with little room for error, and each possession carried a heavy weight.
“It was a high-level game,” Irvin said. “They knew this game would solidify themselves as an (NCAA) Tournament team. … I thought we fought hard. The ball just didn’t bounce our way.”
The outcome of the game came all the way down to the final second, and with the final shot, Northwestern had the final say. The Wildcats made the most important basket of the game and came away with the crucial victory.