There are no pushovers in the Big Ten.
That means that even on a Wednesday night when a team that is barely above .500 comes into Crisler Center to face a Michigan team playing its best basketball of the season, there is no foregone conclusion.
This was abundantly clear as the Wolverines (10-7 overall, 4-3 Big Ten) won a nailbiter over Northwestern (9-9, 2-7), 72-70.
“I learned a lot about this team,” graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “We’re very hungry, very disciplined.”
In the game’s opening stages, freshman wing Caleb Houstan and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson continued their recent hot streaks. Picking up where he left off against Indiana, Houstan drained a deep two in transition to get Michigan on the board and drilled a corner three just a few possessions later. Dickinson looked to be settling in quickly, converting a few baskets early. The pair accounted for 14 of the Wolverines’ first 18 points.
But at the under-12, Northwestern maintained a one-point lead, having made three of its first five three-pointers. Michigan’s incessant fouling didn’t help its situation, either. The two offenses stagnated as the first half wore on. Early foul trouble forced the Wolverines into several awkward lineups, and the offense lacked fluidity as a result. Despite being unable to establish a consistent rhythm, Michigan eked out a 34-31 halftime lead.
An electrifying 6-0 run for fifth-year guard Eli Brooks ignited the dormant crowd early in the second. This newfound energy sparked a 12-2 run for the Wolverines, forcing the Wildcats to take a timeout before the under-16.
But the separation was short-lived. The Wolverines began to turn the ball over on nearly every possession, initiating a brutal offensive stretch. By the under-12, freshman big man Moussa Diabate had racked up his third and fourth fouls, and an eight to one Northwestern run had cut the lead down to just three.
Fouls and turnovers marred the second half — 34 combined fouls and 18 combined turnovers at the under eight ensured that any victory would have to be a grind.
The game began to slip away from the Wolverines as the Wildcats took their second lead of the game via a step-back 3-pointer. Dickinson, often the focal point of Michigan’s offense, got his fourth foul, sending him to the bench.
Northwestern continued to pour it on in its ensuing possessions, and a 22-5 run for the Wildcats forced Howard to call a timeout.
“Teams are good, teams are going to go on runs,” Houstan said. “Just like coach said, take a breath, and just continue to play Michigan basketball.”
All of the progress Michigan had seemed to have made since the loss to Illinois now felt threatened. As they often did earlier in the season, the Wolverines were folding. A once-11-point lead had morphed into a seven-point deficit.
“Juwan Howard just told us to breathe,” Jones said. “He told us just to be us.”
Diabate got to the line on the ensuing possession and cut the deficit to five. Jones then hit a corner three followed up by a Diabate dunk, which tied the game.
Michigan found itself with a late lead in spite of its frontcourt fouling out, but an inability to grab rebounds gave Northwestern a chance at the road win. The Wildcats grabbed the board off of their missed free throw with under five seconds left, they got one final shot. However, the errant heave fell short and the Wolverines escaped with their third victory in a row, the season’s longest win streak.
When Howard was asked to describe how he felt looking back on the game, he didn’t lament the mistakes or Northwestern’s poor record and that perhaps Michigan should have won by more. Instead, in the aftermath of a gritty conference win that his team badly needed, he said simply: