In his first game back since mid November, junior Graham Brown attempted just one inconsequential shot.
But he made the game-changing play.
After a Dion Harris floater put Michigan up five with just over three minutes remaining, Brown — who had hernia surgery on Dec. 7 — stepped in front of Northwestern’s Vedran Vukusic to draw a charge. The crowd hadn’t stopped chanting “Moose” — Brown’s nickname — when Harris hit yet another floater, effectively clinching Michigan’s 71-61 win over the Wildcats last night at Crisler Arena.
“The charge that (Brown) took late in the second half was a very big play for us — for that kid to come back and put his body on the line like that,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.
It was the Wolverines’ ability to draw the foul that kept Northwestern (1-2, 8-7) from gaining any momentum. Michigan (2-0 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) converted 15 of 18 free throws in the second half.
“I thought our foul shooting was the biggest key for us,” Amaker said. “I thought by us being able to make free throws, it kept (the Wildcats) at bay.”
Amaker said he was also pleased with the play of 6-foot-11 forward Courtney Sims and the sophomore’s ability to get to the free throw line. Sims has converted on 16 consecutive free throw attempts and went 7-for-7 from the line last night.
Sims — who netted 17 points on 5-for-7 shooting — also contained Northwestern center Mike Thompson. The 6-foot-10 Duke transfer shot 4-for-13 from the floor and had just 12 points. Thompson averaged 17 points in his first two conference games.
“I think Courtney is a player (who) plays better when he’s had a bigger matchup size-wise,” Amaker said. “Sometimes with smaller players, it kind of throws him for a loop.”
During Michigan’s five-game winning steak, Sims has held opposing centers to just 5.8 points per game — surprising because the Wolverines have had injury problems up front.
Forward Chris Hunter missed his second straight game after injuring an ankle against Iowa, and sophomore Brent Petway — who injured his shoulder on Saturday against Fairfield — was expected to start, but didn’t.
“It came as a surprise to me,” forward J.C. Mathis said about starting instead of Petway. “Brent was prepared to start. Since he couldn’t go, I tried to go out there and basically contribute, mostly on the defensive end.”
Mathis netted four points in 20 minutes. The senior averaged just 6.6 minutes per game prior to last night’s start.
Harris admitted that the team missed Petway’s energy.
“We miss the big dunks, the big blocks, the big rebounds,” Harris said. “When a guy like Brent goes out, all the excitement and the energy fades down. We got to get energized (without him), and I think we did that for the most part (last night).”
The Wolverines led 31-26 at halftime behind a strong first half from Harris. The sophomore hit all three of his 3-point attempts and added four assists. But it was guard Daniel Horton — in just his third game back after missing a month with a left knee sprain — who took over for the Wolverines in the second half. The junior scored 19 of his 24 points after intermission, bringing his career total to exactly 1,000.
“Today, things went well for me in the first half,” Harris said. “I don’t think I shot the ball that well in the second, and (Horton) stepped right in, and he took the load off me. I didn’t have to score much in the second half.”
Northwestern kept it close in the second half by pressing the Wolverines, but Horton was able to break the pressure.
“I was open a lot in the middle against their pressure and was able to get the ball up the floor and get to the basket when we had numbers,” Horton said.
Horton broke the pressure twice when Michigan led by five points midway through the second half. And the junior was able to hit key free throws down the stretch. He converted on all six of his free throw attempts with under two minutes remaining in the game.
“I thought our backcourt was really efficient,” Amaker said. “(Harris and Horton’s) scoring was one of the keys for us to win the game. Dion’s first half was hot for us, and Daniel made some tremendous drives and free throws for us (in the second half).