EVANSTON — Just north of the Windy City, the Michigan men’s basketball team entered the halftime break desperately needing winds of change.
Its road woes looked destined to continue. Its shooting was off the mark and its offense was out of sync. The Wolverines’ offensive rebounding and varied defensive looks were the only things keeping them in it, and after four-straight road losses, history looked destined to repeat itself in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
But in a flash, Michigan (12-10 overall, 6-5 Big Ten) caught fire after halftime, blowing past Northwestern (15-7, 6-5), 68-51. An offensive effort that at first had the Wolverines careening toward yet another road loss instead led it to victory.
When asked how his team overcame the slow first half, Michigan coach Juwan Howard summed it up in one word: mindset.
“I said to them at halftime that we got some good open looks, continue to attack the glass,” Howard said. “At the same time, those open looks will go down, just trust it. That’s why I said ‘mindset,’ by our guys just staying the course.”
A resilient mindset was necessary as the Wolverines shot just 29% in the first half. But it was their most glaringly stagnant scorer in the opening minutes — junior center Hunter Dickinson — who buoyed Michigan to a 26-25 halftime lead.
Dickinson missed his first four shots and heard ‘air ball’ chants rain down from the crowd. But after lifting the lid off the rim with a hook shot seven minutes in and slapping his head on the way down the court — as if telling himself to wake up — Dickinson did just that to finish the game with a team-high 19 points. Pairing that with a barrage of offensive boards and a variety of defensive looks kept the Wolverines and their sluggish offense in the game early.
That variety of defensive looks, whether a full-court 3-2 trap into man or a 2-3 zone, also kept Michigan in it and the Wildcats off balance — none more apparent than guard Chase Audige, Northwestern’s second-leading scorer. Despite being honored before the game for notching 1,000 career points, he missed his party and opened the game shooting 0-for-9 to finish with 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting from the field.
By the halftime break, no matter how sloppy or how cold the Wolverines were from the field, the game was up for the taking.
So instead of worrying about the start, they focused on what was ahead of them.
“We weren’t really worried about the shooting,” sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin said. “We knew shots were going to fall eventually. Just more emphasis on (keeping) going on defense.”
As Michigan’s defense continued holding strong, Dickinson — who took his first-half wakeup call even more seriously in the final frame — opened the second half with aggression, drawing multiple fouls and converting at the stripe. From there, Michigan’s first half shooting weakness became its greatest strength as it surged to a 22-4 run midway through the second on 8-for-12 shooting in that stretch.
Graduate guard Joey Baker joined Dickinson’s prowess in that stretch. While Dickinson gashed the paint and shrugged off defenders down low, Baker remained threatening from deep, finishing 3-for-4 from 3-point range. His and-1 3-pointer just four minutes into the half further catalyzed the run which Dickinson and company kept building off of — all the while keeping Baker confident.
“Most of my shots I feel like are going in when they leave my hand,” Baker said with a chuckle. “There’s some that don’t … and that one, I felt like it was in there. I felt him clip me a little bit (and) I was like, ‘this is good stuff.’ ”
Michigan’s “good stuff” dominated the energy in Welsh-Ryan Arena as the second half continued, and its offensive renaissance left the Wildcats in its wake. Shots were falling, the Wolverines started scoring in transition and their defense remained effective.
That success created a new scene after the game. During its four-straight road losses, Michigan filed out of its locker room toward the bus in disappointment time and time again. But this time, change was in the air, and it was clear across the Wolverines’ faces. One-by-one they exited the locker room, smiling with their heads held high.
Because for the first time since early December, they were getting ready to travel back home to Ann Arbor with a win.