It was a sigh of relief disguised as a champion’s welcome.
When Michigan coach John Beilein walked into the visiting locker room at Welsh-Ryan Arena to address his team after its first victory in a month, his players greeted him with a roar.
No one could criticize the team for its warm welcome, following a 78-68 win over Northwestern Saturday in which Michigan displayed its clear talent advantage.
The Wolverines had just snapped a five-game losing streak.
They had won on the road for the first time.
And they just picked up their first conference win of the season.
While it was of the utmost importance for Michigan to beat the Wildcats, nobody wanted to celebrate the victory too much. When asked about the win, freshman Manny Harris was already looking ahead to Wednesday’s game against an unusually weak Illinois squad.
“We got the confidence now,” Harris said. “We got to go on the road to Illinois and pull out another one.”
The Wolverines will have a good chance if they can maintain their hot shooting. Before Saturday’s game, nobody would have been talking about hot shooting or confidence – except to discuss Michigan’s lack thereof. The team entered the game with a Big Ten-worst shooting percentage.
The Michigan players and coaches said there was no secret what they needed to do to break out of the slump and restore confidence: Make shots.
At Northwestern, that’s exactly what happened.
Behind 56-percent shooting from the field in the first half, the Wolverines restored their swagger and built a 21-point lead at the break.
In recent games, it wasn’t that Michigan (1-3 Big Ten, 5-11 overall) was taking bad shots. They just weren’t going in.
But Michigan’s shots fell on Saturday.
Harris called it the team’s best shooting game of the year.
In each of their last three games, the Wolverines have suffered first-half field-goal droughts of at least six minutes. That was not the case against Northwestern.
In the final six minutes of the first stanza on Saturday, Michigan used a 22-5 run to extend a four-point lead to a dominating 21 points. During that stretch, the Wolverines knocked down their first six shots while Northwestern missed its first three and committed two turnovers.
The Wildcats (0-4, 5-8) played a matchup zone that Michigan had not seen since the first week of the season. But the Wolverines spent more time preparing for Northwestern than previous opponents.
Michigan attacked the Wildcats’ defense, driving the ball to the hoop with regularity.
Northwestern sophomore Kevin Coble scored 20 of his game-high 34 points in the second half, helping the Wildcats to cut the deficit to eight with 47 seconds remaining, but the Wolverines hit their next five free throws to ice the game.
Beilein warned reporters not to read too much into the Wildcats’ late-game run because his team has not faced an end-of-game free throw situation in a long time.
The players said they would learn from Northwestern’s run but that it would not detract from the excitement of winning a conference road game.
Or, for the matter, the relief of winning their first game in a month.