INDIANAPOLIS — In a game filled with big shots, a player whose coaches call him “Big Shot” made the biggest shot of all.
Junior forward Zak Irvin’s twisting, mid-range jumper with three seconds remaining in overtime gave Michigan a 72-70 win and a berth in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, setting up a Friday clash with top-seeded Indiana that gives the Wolverines a final opportunity to punch an NCAA Tournament ticket.
Playing in his home state, a short drive from his home town, Irvin wanted the basketball, and Michigan coach John Beilein made sure to give it to him on the Wolverines’ final offensive possession.
“The guys had been joking around, on the bus and earlier today, that since this is my home town, saying this is my city,” Irvin said. “I was just jumping around with them, saying that (again), after I made the play.”
Early on, it seemed that Irvin’s big shot wouldn’t be necessary. As it opened up a 13-point lead early in the first half, Michigan seemed poised to coast to victory, rest its starters and enter tomorrow’s matchup at least somewhat rested. Redshirt sophomore forward Duncan Robinson was shooting 3-pointers, sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was scoring inside and out, and Michigan’s defensive energy shut down Northwestern center Alex Olah.
Olah had other ideas, riding Northwestern’s second-half rally into the game’s final minute, when he cut Michigan’s lead to one point with a 3 from the left wing, then sent the game to overtime on a putback with 0.1 seconds remaining.
Olah entered the game averaging 22 points in his last three tries against Michigan, but was limited in the first half to just two points and three rebounds, in large part because redshirt junior Mark Donnal was able to repeatedly swat rebounds inches away from Olah’s grasp to the perimeter.
“That’s just the way it played out,” Donnal said, comparing the first half to Olah’s 19-point performance on Feb. 24 at Crisler Center. “We had a better game plan going in on Olah. We had a little more help this game.”
Olah finished strong and ended up with 20 points and 13 rebounds, again in a losing effort. Northwestern’s Trey Demps tied Robinson for a game-high 21 points, while Irvin and the Wildcats’ Bryant McIntosh each scored 19 and Abdur-Rahkman scored 14.
Robinson could easily have had 22, but he missed a critical free throw that would have put the game away late in the second half.
Charity-stripe miss notwithstanding, Beilein didn’t hesitate to dial his number in overtime, and the gamble paid off. Robinson’s 3-pointers in the overtime period’s first and last minutes helped the Wolverines avoid disaster, and the second set up Irvin’s game-winner.
“I told him, ‘We’re going right back at you,’ ” Beilein said. “ ‘You’re going to get 3s to help us win the game.’ Exactly what I said. … We needed to pick everybody up, and he was one of the guys that we looked in the eye and said, ‘You’re gonna bounce back and help us win this game.’ ”
Michigan, notorious in recent years for its struggles inbounding the basketball, needed three tries to get the ball in against a ferocious Northwestern press, but eventually got the ball in to Robinson, who got away with a travel and made a pair of free throws to give Michigan another two-point lead.
“Yeah, that was ugly again, wasn’t it?” Beilein said of his team’s recurring struggles on inbounds plays.
Michigan didn’t win in the way it wanted to, given the early lopsidedness and its game less than 24 hours from now. Irvin, Abdur-Rahkman and Walton played 42, 41 and 41 minutes, respectively, meaning they won’t have fresh legs for tomorrow’s win-or-go-home clash against Indiana.
For now, however, the Wolverines are simply happy to be alive.