INDIANAPOLIS Maybe it was because LaVell Blanchard was not satisfied in his recent third team All Big Ten selection by the media. Maybe it was because Blanchard was sick of people calling his season a disappointment.
Maybe it was just because six careers and a season were on the line.
Either way, Blanchard led the Wolverines with a season-high 26 points 17 in the first half alone as the inspired 10th-seeded Wolverines played their best game of the season. Michigan trounced No. 7 seed Northwestern, 72-51, in a half-empty Conseco Fieldhouse in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Freshman Dommanic Ingerson made his first career start in the absence of Avery Queen, who sat out the entire game with an ailing knee. Michigan coach Tommy Amaker played his starting five Ingerson, Blanchard, Chris Young, Leon Jones and Bernard Robinson for more than 35 minutes for the first time all season. His Wolverines responded by playing with the most mental toughness and grit they have all year long.
In doing so, Michigan (5-11 Big Ten, 11-17 overall) snapped its six-game losing streak and will move on to play No. 2 seed and co-Big Ten champion Ohio State tonight at 6:40 p.m.
Amaker says he expects Queen to play.
Northwestern (7-9, 16-13), committed an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers and let Michigan shoot 61 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
“This is not the way we wanted to finish our year,” said Northwestern forward Tavaras Hardy, who scored 17 points. “Not the way we played.”
A lot of the credit should go to Blanchard, however, who scored nine straight points early in the first half to give Michigan a 12-point advantage. And he didn”t stop there.
Blanchard, who scored over 20 points for just the first time this season, shot a scorching 5-for-7 from 3-point range and did everything from taking charges to grabbing offensive boards to getting key defensive stops.
“It was nice for him to have a break-out type of game,” Amaker said. “You could tell he had an extra bounce in his step, and once his first few shots went down, he had a ton of confidence and that spread throughout the entire team.”
After Northwestern cut the lead to four late in the first half, it was Blanchard who drained two consecutive 3-pointers to help give Michigan some breathing room and a 36-28 halftime cushion. Blanchard hit a jumper, took a charge and hit a 3-pointer in three consecutive possessions early in the second half to give Michigan a 17-point lead.
And when Northwestern made its final run, cutting the lead back down to six points with seven minutes to go, it was Blanchard who took another charge and then tipped in a Bernard Robinson miss to extend the lead back to eight.
With such a slow-moving, deliberate offense that depends on back cuts and 3-pointers, Northwestern didn”t have the firepower to come back. The Wildcats beat the Wolverines on back cuts just twice for layups and shot 26 percent (8-for-30) from 3-point range.
“This is the first time we”ve put an entire game together,” Young said.