Just like it did in its game against then-No. 6 Maryland on Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team (10-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) started slow in their Wednesday night matchup with Northwestern. The difference, however, was that the Wolverines were at Crisler Center on Wednesday, not in a hostile road environment, and their opponent wasn’t on the same level.
Michigan was able to hold out, despite multiple scoring droughts, thanks to hot second-half scoring from sophomore guards Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, beating the Wildcats, 72-63.
The duo combined for 30 points, with 21 coming in the second frame alone.
“(Abdur-Rahkman) is really good off the dribble,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “He did a great job driving the whole night. Like I said, he either got to the paint or got us in foul trouble. He wasn’t afraid. I thought he had some really impressive drives where he went right into our big guys — right into their chests — and had a couple big-time finishes.
“I thought he was a huge, huge deciding factor in why (Michigan) won tonight.”
Northwestern (5-10, 17-11) steamrolled the Wolverines for nearly six minutes to start the first half, scoring 10 unanswered points. Junior forward Zak Irvin finally ended Michigan’s 0-for-8 stretch with a layup that started the Wolverines’ steady comeback.
Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. helped spark Michigan’s rally, scoring back-to-back underhand layups to bring the Wolverines within two points of the Wildcats with seven minutes to go in the first half. Abdur-Rahkman tacked on nine more points in the frame, including three made free throws to cap a 9-0 Michigan run after being fouled on a shot-clock-beating 3-point attempt.
The Wolverines missed their first eight attempts from beyond the arc and didn’t score their first triple until junior guard Duncan Robinson hit a buzzer-beating 3 heading into halftime to make it 29-28, Northwestern.
But Michigan’s first-half comeback wasn’t quite enough to jumpstart the team, as the Wolverines started the second half in a similar fashion to the first.
It took Michigan 5:43 to get on the board to start the game, and it took another 4:10 to score in the second frame. The Wildcats went on an 8-0 run to start the second half before being stopped by an Abdur-Rahkman layup. Again, Michigan had to claw back from a hefty deficit.
“(Northwestern) just runs some really good offense,” Walton said. “They ran some sets at a speed that it’s really hard to guard and protect the basket and worry about who you’re guarding. Tip your hat to them — a really potent offensive group, pretty much. We’re going to look at some things we can adjust, like always, but you’ve gotta tip your hat to them, they made some really good buckets.”
Dawkins hit a big triple, Michigan’s second of the game, at an opportune time to get the Wolverines within one point of the Wildcats. Eighty seconds later, he hit another one to tie up the game at 44.
“It was big,” Abdur-Rakhman said of Dawkins’ 3-pointers. “Not everybody was hitting shots, but for him to come in off the bench and hit those 3s is big for us.”
Added Walton: “I don’t even know what we shot from 3 today, but I know it wasn’t too good. That really was a big lift, but that’s what he does. Time and time again, he just comes in and checks in and is making big shots. At this point, I’m not surprised. At this point, I’m just making sure that when he’s on the court, I’m trying to find him.”
With the momentum building, sophomore forward Kam Chatman grabbed Michigan’s first lead of the game after sinking two at the charity stripe. From then on, Michigan and Northwestern traded leads twice, but Dawkins hit another important trey to put the Wolverines up 57-54 with 4:26 left to go.
Michigan didn’t look back from there, securing the victory when Dawkins went coast to coast for a layup to give the Wolverines a 68-61 lead with 1:19 left.
Junior forward Mark Donnal and sophomore forward Ricky Doyle had a tough time defending Northwestern big man Alex Olah in the first half, allowing him to shoot 6-for-11 for 14 points. Olah led the Wildcats with a game-high 19 points, but Abdur-Rahkman was able to match him with 19 points of his own for a Michigan victory.
The Wolverines are keeping their NCAA tournament hopes alive, despite cutting it close against a mediocre Big Ten team at home.