EVANSTON — For 23 minutes, it looked like it was going to be easy.
Then, the No. 5 Michigan men’s basketball team (2-0 Big Ten, 9-0 overall) inexplicably met its biggest challenge in a season that has included three double-digit wins over ranked opponents, before escaping with a 62-60 win.
Northwestern — trailing 45-30 with 16:13 to play — broke off seven quick points to cut the Wolverines’ lead to eight. Michigan, though, was used to that. Both North Carolina and Purdue made second half mini-runs without ever really threatening the Wolverines.
“Every other team that has played this team,” said Wildcats coach Chris Collins, “when they made a push on them, like they did to get to 15 points, every other team has laid down and lost by 25 or 30.”
So when freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis hit a layup to break Michigan’s drought, most assumed that the Wolverines would roll for the rest of the evening.
But before anyone had time to digest that assumption, the Wildcats got an and-one, followed by a pair of baskets off turnovers. Then, another and-one.
As Michigan coach John Beilein signaled for a timeout, the crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena — or at least, the purple-clad half of it — rose to a fever pitch, temporarily transforming into a standing-room-only venue.
Brazdeikis — who finished with a game-high 23 points — and junior guard Zavier Simpson hit back-to-back baskets for the Wolverines to briefly placate the storm, but the rest of the night was far from comfortable for Michigan.
With 6:33 to play, Northwestern guard Vic Law pulled up for his second 3-point attempt in a row. Just like the previous one, it found nothing but nylon, putting the Wildcats up 52-51 — the Wolverines’ first second half deficit since Nov. 10 against Holy Cross.
“The shots that Law was making and (Ryan) Taylor made, they were tough shots,” Beilein said. “It wasn’t like he was getting open, he created all those NBA (shots).”
Added Brazdeikis: “They were hitting shots when we weren’t. I felt like we had a bunch of open shots in the second half, and they weren’t falling. And then they started to hit crazy shots.”
That three, combined with Michigan’s ongoing five-minute scoring drought, prompted Beilein to make an unusual change, replacing Simpson with sophomore guard Eli Brooks.
Simpson was among the Wolverines’ most important players in the early going, with eight first-half points. But Collins’ defense adjusted at halftime, playing off Simspon and forcing him to beat them from 3-point range. And when Simpson responded by going 0-for-5 from three, Beilein called on Brooks.
Brooks — after a Brazdeikis three tied the game — rewarded his coach’s faith by hitting a three to restore Michigan’s lead.
“They were just daring (Simpson) to shoot,” Beilein said. “And as a result, we ran with Eli. We got faith in him. Eli’s a good defender. He’s an above-average defender, Zavier is a spectacular defender. So we’re giving up something, but we needed to get something from somebody and he gave it.”
From there, the teams traded baskets. After Brooks’ three, it was Brazdeikis with a free throw. Then junior center Jon Teske and sophomore guard Jordan Poole with a pair of easy dunks.
But with each Michigan basket that seemed to shift momentum back to the Wolverines’ sideline, the Wildcats conjured a response. Brazdeikis’ free throw was the only time in the last 11:30 that Northwestern didn’t respond with a basket of its own.
So, despite a late flurry of points, Michigan was unable to extend its lead beyond one possession.
When a Wildcat offensive foul granted the Wolverines the opportunity to do so, redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews promptly responded with a traveling violation. On its next possession — with a two-point lead and under a minute to play — Michigan had yet another opportunity to put the game to bed after a pair of clutch defensive rebounds. This time, it was a shot-clock violation that undid the Wolverines, offering Northwestern a final possession with 14.2 seconds to play.
Then, Michigan’s stifling defense — absent for so much of the second half — showed why it has been lauded as the nation’s best when it mattered most.
It forced the Wildcats into a desperation heave at the buzzer that smacked off the backboard, cladded the front of the rim and bounced harmlessly to the floor as the Wolverines — somehow — escaped with their perfect record intact.
“I knew we were gonna have to go through games like this if we’re gonna be good,” Beilein said.
“And we survived it. I don’t know how.”