EVANSTON — Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue.
A minute into his press conference, trying to sum up a game in which his team played above its level yet still came up short, Northwestern coach Chris Collins offered the kind of statement you couldn’t have imagined anyone saying about Michigan a month ago.
“We still fight back,” Collins said. “We take the lead, get it to the last two minutes against what a lot of you feel is the best team in the country.”
And, after a ninth-straight win to start the season for the Wolverines, that wasn’t all that surprising a thing to say.
Tuesday was the worst game Michigan has played this season. It suffered scoreless stretches in which its best offensive answer was junior point guard Zavier Simpson chucking a 3-pointer, on which he was 0-for-5. It struggled to contain Dererk Pardon, who scored 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting with five rebounds as a result. When junior center Jon Teske was off the floor, the Wolverines struggled to contain pretty much everyone. In the waning minutes of a close game, Michigan coach John Beilein went to sophomore Eli Brooks to run point — not Simpson, the team’s heart and soul.
And yet, when the clock read zeroes, the Wolverines had beaten the Wildcats, 62-60. In that sense, Tuesday’s was the most impressive game Michigan has played thus far.
This was on the road, in the Big Ten, with a hostile crowd, in a late, close game against an opponent who had beaten the Wolverines every time the two played in its building since 2013. It’s the type of game Michigan could get away with losing and given the way Michigan played, it’s the type of game it should have lost.
Last year, it was a game the Wolverines did lose. A year ago to the day, Michigan went to Columbus and coughed up a 20-point lead, unable to stop the Buckeyes’ sea of momentum once they got rolling. There was nobody it could trust in that spot and when adversity came, things fell apart.
“We didn’t get scrambled,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “I feel like a team can easily get scrambled being in a situation like this for the first time, but we had a lot of vets out there on the court. Guys who had been in this situation last year. We didn’t get rattled. We were just executing.”
After Northwestern pulled into the lead for the first time, with 6:32 to go in the game, Brooks and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to take it right back.
After the Wildcats tied it again with just over two minutes to go, Poole cruised into the lane and threw down a hammer.
And after the offense failed to execute in the game’s final minute — redshirt junior Charles Matthews traveling and Northwestern forcing a shot clock violation — the Wolverines bore down and forced a desperation 3-pointer from Ryan Taylor at the buzzer.
At some point amid the preceding run from the Wildcats, Simpson told the team to calm down. It wasn’t necessary.
“He didn’t have to say calm down,” Poole said, “cause everybody’s already calm.”
Michigan is relatively young, without a senior on its roster, but it carries the experience of last year’s Final Four run — in droves. Save for Brazdeikis, everyone on the floor as the game wound down had faced situations a whole lot tougher than Welsh-Ryan Arena on a Tuesday.
As for the freshman, who led the team in scoring with 23 points, there was no ambiguity.
“We can go all the way,” Brazdeikis said. “We can win the whole damn thing. No doubt.”
At this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise.