The game’s final 10 seconds were tick-tock-ticking away when the Michigan men’s basketball team was given the ball out of bounds underneath Northwestern’s basket.
Sure, the Wolverines were down a few too many points, but they weren’t defeated yet. It was still a pray-for-a-miracle situation.
But no Michigan player went to the baseline, nobody was ready to throw the ball in. Eventually freshman guard Darius Morris tossed it in, got the ball back and sprinted down the court. As he ran, the game clock marched toward Northwestern’s 68-62 victory, and when Morris reached the paint, he lost control of the ball.
It was a painstaking, fitting image of Michigan’s play Sunday afternoon — though to be fair, the Wolverines lost control of the game way before the final moments.
Some may point to the moment midway through the second half when, after leading by 17 points, Michigan saw its lead disintegrate into a tied ballgame. Others could say it was the pair of Northwestern free throws with 1:14 left in the game, the points that gave the Wildcats the lead for good after Morris hit a huge 3-pointer to give the Wolverines a brief advantage. The free throws, coupled with Michigan’s three turnovers in the final 1:03, crushed the Wolverines’ final glimmer of hope.
But according to Michigan coach John Beilein and the stat sheet, the Wolverines lost their very comfortable grip on the game toward the end of the first half.
All of the sudden, with four minutes left before halftime, Northwestern’s zone defense became smothering, and the Wildcats’ offense came alive in the form of freshman Drew Crawford — who went on a personal 11-0 run.
And even though Crawford would continue to pester the Wolverine defense for 25 points on the day, the Wildcat defense was more troublesome for Michigan.
“Their 1-3-1 defense, what makes it so successful is the way they can touch the ball,” Beilein said. “When you have touchers on the ball … that’s really huge. That certainly took us out of rhythm, and because that took us out of rhythm, our defense in the second half was not good.”
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody confirmed how the 1-3-1 zone devastated the Wolverines, too — his Wildcats were “really getting their hands on balls and taking away passing lanes,” he said. It’s no coincidence that Michigan’s 18 turnovers more than doubled its season average.
Northwestern’s zone worked, and it certainly confused the Wolverine offense. It’s as simple as that.
And Michigan’s defense, which feeds off offensive success, struggled in the second half, too. Northwestern shot 7-for-10 from beyond the arc and tallied 40 points after halftime alone. The lack of defensive pressure made it all too easy for the Wildcats to claw back into the game.
“We were distracted by our lack of offense, and that’s just the story of this team,” Beilein said when asked why his team collapsed. “There was no complacency.”
Worries of complacency should have been at the forefront of every Wolverine’s mind at halftime Sunday afternoon. Just three nights earlier, they had been the stars of an incredible comeback story, storming back from a 16-point deficit to defeat Penn State on the road. Sunday’s game felt all too similar — but from the opposite point of view.
In the postgame locker room, reporter after reporter asked players what exactly happened. Blank stares and dejected expressions answered the question better than words could have. Nobody knew what happened, nobody could come up with ideas to fix the team’s problems, and certainly, nobody felt good after Sunday’s loss.
“It’s real confusing,” sophomore guard Stu Douglass said. “I’m not sure, you know. I think it starts with leadership at all positions. We all have to step up. … We have to get a lot better than we were today.”