ROSEMONT, Ill. — One team made shots and the other one didn’t.
It’s as simple as a basketball game can become. There are reasons for why the Michigan men’s basketball team shot 38.6 percent from the floor and Northwestern shot 50 percent from deep in the second half.
But the reasons don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the Wolverines (8-5 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) didn’t trail Northwestern at all in the first 20 minutes of Tuesday’s game after getting off to an uncharacteristically quick start.
What matters is that the 20th-ranked Wolverines’ stagnant offense and pitiful free-throw shooting finally caught up to them, as they eventually fell, 61-52.
“We came out and really played well,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We had a good plan. When they adapted to our plan, we could not adapt very well. We have some habits that keep us from getting better, and the only thing we can do is practice and try to get better.”
The free throws have been the least glamorous stat as of late, but they weren’t the singular issue by any stretch. The Wolverines couldn’t get anything going against Northwestern’s matchup zone defense. That was part of the difference in this game as opposed to last week’s game between the teams.
Back then, Michigan overloaded one side of the court and beat the Wildcat defense with sheer numbers to pull away in the second half.
This time, the shooting never woke up. Instead, the Wolverines’ mistakes kept coming.
Meanwhile, Northwestern kept applying pressure and making shots, going 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. McIntosh got whatever he wanted wherever he wanted it, finishing with 24 points.
Michigan, on the other hand, crumpled, as Wagner was the only Wolverine with anything resembling rhythm.
Down eight with just over four minutes to go, freshman guard Jordan Poole corralled a rebound. He looked ahead and saw sophomore guard Zavier Simpson streak ahead of the crowd. Poole attempted a long bounce pass, but threw it directly off the foot of Northwestern forward Scottie Lindsey.
The Wildcats went the other way, and McIntosh hit a floater in the lane to extend the lead to 10.
“We were pretty good (defensively) I think,” Wagner said. “I mean, a similar gameplan to last time. Obviously it didn’t work out as well as we planned it, because they made a lot more shots, and they found their way to the rim a lot better.”
In the first half, things got off to a rocky start when freshman forward Isaiah Livers turned his ankle on an attempted layup and couldn’t return to action for the rest of the game.
At first it didn’t seem to affect Michigan, as it got out to a quick start right away. A 3-pointer from fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson gave the Wolverines a quick, 13-3 lead at the under-16 media timeout.
Northwestern battled back, though. Behind 11 and 10 first-half points from Lindsey and McIntosh, respectively, the Wildcats were within striking distance much of the half. They trailed by just three at the intermission.
That’s when they overwhelmed Michigan.
“They have not shot the ball as well this year. Their numbers are down,” Beilein said. “… They spread you out, and all of a sudden, you’re in close outs, you’re in close outs, you’re in close outs. And so, they started the second half by jamming it inside, but then, the 3-pointers got us the rest of the way.”
Who knows if the Wolverines would have been able to overcome Northwestern’s shooting barrage if Livers hadn’t gotten hurt. It’s entirely possible they wouldn’t have.
Still, Wagner cited Livers’ energy, defensive effort and versatility as things Michigan missed, and Beilein mentioned that the injury likely made things tougher on fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, who had to play 36 minutes in Livers’ stead.
Either way, the poor shooting the Wolverines have recently been able to get away with was exposed this time. They won’t get another opportunity to right the ship until they travel to Wisconsin on Sunday.
So all that’s left to do now is wait, hope a healthy Livers can return with the energy his teammates value and see if the hot shooting that’s been flashed in select games this season can return.