EVANSTON — Entering the second contest of what players have called a “10-game season,” the Michigan men’s basketball team brought with it renewed hope — thanks in large part to its improved defense and reliance on senior forward DeShawn Sims.
And in a stretch of just nine minutes, Michigan’s “second season” was thrown into a tailspin.
The Wolverines were outscored 17-4 in the first 10 minutes of the second half at Northwestern last night, letting a four-point deficit swell to 17 as the Wildcats ran away toward a 67-52 victory. The defeat gave Northwestern a season sweep — its first against the Wolverines since the 1966-67 season — erased whatever momentum Michigan hoped to sustain heading into the final stretch of the regular season.
“We didn’t have any jump,” junior forward Manny Harris said. “We weren’t making shots. We lost focus on defense and they made shots. That’s basically all.”
Northwestern forward John Shurna helped Northwestern grab firm control of the contest five minutes into the seond half, knocking down a pretty turnaround jumper over Michigan (4-6 Big Ten, 11-11 overall) forward Zack Novak, then slapping a missed shot off the glass and through the net two possessions later. With the Wildcats (4-6, 15-7) up 11 and the crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena ready for the kill-shot, freshman Drew Crawford once again became a one-man highlight reel.
Crawford knocked down two triples and a short jumper on three straight possessions, effectively putting the game out of reach and closing the door on Michigan’s third consecutive road loss.
“Crawford continues to just amaze me,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Just absolutely amaze me. For a freshman to play with the skill and the strength, at the level that he’s playing at, he’s a great player.”
It wasn’t the first time Crawford’s sharpshooting hurt the Wolverines. The Wildcats’ swingman tallied 25 points against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Jan. 10 in a game in which Northwestern pulled the rug out from underneath Michigan.
But the Wildcats took all the drama out of the rematch, shooting 54 percent while nailing 10 3-pointers, including five triples on five consecutive possessions in the first half.
Hot perimeter shooting, crisp ball movement and effective dribble penetration from the likes of Crawford and point guard Michael Thompson created a nightmare for the Wolverines, both when they stuck with man-to-man and when they went to their 1-3-1 zone defense.
“They just run everything hard,” Harris said. “They run everything to perfection. They don’t seem like they have any breakdowns in their offense. You just have to be prepared to guard them for 35 seconds. … You just have to be mentally tough with them.”
Harris struggled mightily throughout the night, hitting just 4-of-14 from the field while being swallowed up by the Wildcats’ second and third defenders whenever he drove through the lane.
Though the Wolverines held onto the ball fairly well and created a lot of open 3-pointers against the Wildcats’ zone defense, the bricks piled up before the game finally slipped away in the final 15 minutes. Michigan took more than half of its shots from behind the arc Tuesday, making just 8-of-28 attempts.
With the shooters once again ice cold — the Wolverines made just six field goals after halftime — Michigan couldn’t find anything in the paint to keep within striking distance. Sims was harassed in the post all night, missing 7-of-9 shots as the long arms of 6-foot-11 Luka Mirkovic (along with the Wildcats’ help defenders) disrupted his timing and his touch.
“(Sims) had a rough night,” Beilein said. “Mirkovic is really improved, and he really plays great post defense. … He’s not a great shot-blocker, but he plays great position defense in the post, and (Northwestern) always had another helper in there.”
Though the players were clearly deflated after letting the second half spiral completely out of control, some were still thinking in terms of the team’s second season.
“You still got eight games left,” freshman point guard Darius Morris said. “There’s no time to mope around. You just try to get better every day. I know it sounds a little repetitive, but that’s just what we’ve got to do – keep our heads up.”