If you spill a drink at a party, it’s a party foul.
If the party’s theme was “spill your drink,” then, well, you did what you had to do and nothing more.
For the beginning of Monday night’s contest against Northwestern, the Michigan men’s basketball team was exactly in this position. Facing the Wildcats’ zone defense, the Wolverines started 1-for-12 from three and coughed up the ball four times in the first 15 minutes, while also missing a number of defensive assignments.
Michigan was metaphorically spilling all over itself after an offensive onslaught in its loss to Purdue on Thursday. Luckily for the Wolverines, a wholly lackluster performance was still just enough. Northwestern (4-6 Big Ten, 13-10 overall) was almost equally abysmal from the field — it shot 18-for-47 for the game with Scottie Lindsey as the lone double-digit scorer — and simply ran out of counter-punches, giving No. 24 Michigan (7-4, 18-6) room to leave with an uninspiring 58-47 victory.
“I didn’t think after the first 10 minutes of that game that I’d be walking in here with a W,” said Michigan coach John Beilein as he entered the press room. “… They punched us in the mouth in the beginning and it took us a while to get used to it. I’m really pleased we came back and made some shots, but our defense … it was exceptional.”
Added Northwestern coach Chris Collins: “I thought our guys competed, we just couldn’t put it in the basket. Some of that was us, I thought we shot ourselves in the foot sometimes. Some ill-advised turnovers. But it was also Michigan. They were very physical, organized and made it tough on us.”
Besides 3-point shooting woes, the Wolverines were even struggling to stick to the basics in the first half. On two separate occasions after collective defensive rebounds, Michigan threw the ball away before having the chance to normally bring it up the court. Duncan Robinson was involved in one of those instances, and it served as a microcosm of the Wolverines’ woeful half. The fifth-year senior forward shot 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, but also converted three open looks in the paint for a team-high of just six points in Michigan’s 21-19 halftime lead.
“We were up two at half. Are you kidding me?” Beilein said. “We didn’t make shots, we didn’t make foul shots but we held them and that was the key to win.”
In the following half, the game’s theme switched from just playing bulwark defense to adding some offense. The Wolverines scored in their first four possessions, but even the Wildcats were finding luck after nine consecutive scoreless minutes, starting 5-for-9 to keep the game close.
“One, we had to get more stops on the defensive end and then get out in transition and two, we couldn’t just settle for threes,” said redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews. “When they threw a zone at us at the beginning, we just gotta rocket-line it, we still have to go to the paint and get two feet in.”
As a result, it took about 11 minutes for the teams to surpass their total first half outputs. In that span, junior forward Moritz Wagner made his presence known with a spot-up trey and a mid-range leaner after registering a scoreless first half. He also surprised with his defense as his matchup, Wildcat forward Dererk Pardon, couldn’t get anything going on the other end and was held to just nine points.
It was Matthews, though, who was able to inject life and let the Wolverines get comfortable. He came through with two emphatic dunks and a 3-pointer to widen Michigan’s lead to the point of no return. Matthews and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were the Wolverines’ only double-digit scorers, with 14 and 11 points, respectively.
“We knew their zone was gonna give us space in the beginning and we hadn’t seen anything like that in a while,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We just had to adjust to it and once we did we were fine.”
It surely wasn’t pretty — few games have been that way for Michigan recently. But in the case of Monday’s game, the Wolverines did exactly what they needed to do.