Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Michigan 72, Northwestern 63: The bucketmaker

Zak Irvin drove to the basket for Michigan's first bucket, almost six minutes into the game -- fitting on a cold night across the country, as snow sprinkled softly across the land.

By then, visiting Northwestern already built a 10-0 lead before Irvin's two in front of a far-from-capacity Crisler Center crowd. Atmosphere and execution formed one homogeneous arena-shaped blob of listless discontent.

Despite its cold start, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's 19 points, 16 points from Derrick Walton and a big second half from Aubrey Dawkins led Michigan (20-9, 10-6) to a much-needed 72-63 win against the Wildcats on Wednesday night in Ann Arbor.

Michigan overcame a brutal night from beyond the arc (4-for-15) to score its sixth in a row against Northwestern in Ann Arbor.

Coming into tonight, Michigan's tournament ticket balanced precariously in the air -- a gust of wind, good fortune, would send the ticket flying nearly into its grasp. Or, gravity would do its work, sending said ticket hurtling just inches above a metaphorical paper shredder below.

Jerry Palm placed Michigan in the "last four in" category heading into tonight. A loss would necessitate the tall task of a win at Wisconsin or at home against Iowa, not to mention likely at least one win in the Big Ten tournament.

It wasn't pretty, but conference play often isn't. Northwestern big man Alex Olah once again had his way with the Wolverines, scoring 14 first-half points, while the home team started 0-for-8 from beyond the arc -- a familiar story, to be sure.

Slowly but surely, however, Michigan clawed back into it, led by Abdur-Rahkman's nine first-half points. And just in time, Duncan Robinson buried Michigan's first triple of the game as time expired on the first half, sending Michigan into the break down by just one.

In the second, however, Michigan would have to find a way to check Olah, who made hay in the paint and flashed the ability to stretch the defense with mid-range jumpers (and even one three).

But just like the first, Michigan creaked out of the gates.

Multiple Michigan turnovers paired with an 8-0 NU run once again put the Wolverines in catch-up mode. Early in the half, the Wolverines had already tallied nine turnovers, and continued their cold first-half shooting from three, missing their first two attempts of the second half.

While Irvin and Robinson's shots were off, Abdur-Rahkman continued to make it happen, including a nifty spin into a left-handed layup. A couple minutes later, he maneuvered around the elbow to drop a slick bounce pass to Ricky Doyle on the right block for two.

After a strong effort at Maryland (16 points, 9 assists) and two weeks ago at Minnesota (16 points), the sophomore Abdur-Rahkman has increasingly flashed his value to the team, as an individual playmaker and as a sometimes capable distributor (the latter of which was notoriously not in his arsenal, even earlier this season and certainly not as a freshman).

For a guy who was seemingly lost in the shuffle of preseason ruminations on the minutes hierarchy, he's done quite well to take advantage of his opportunities of late.

A Dawkins triple tied it at 44 with just over 11 minutes to play. A Northwestern turnover on the next possession gave the Crisler crowd new life.

And, speaking of guys lost in the shuffle, Kam Chatman gave Michigan its first lead of the game with a pair of free throws after tough work on the offensive glass.

NU briefly retook the lead, but yet another strong drive for two by Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins's third triple of the game gave Michigan a 57-54 advantage with 4:15 to play. With the shot clock winding down on a later possession, Abdur-Rahkman rebounded his own miss and added two more points at the rim, padding Michigan's points-in-the-paint advantage (frame that clause for posterity).

Then, on a loose ball situation with a minute and change left, Dawkins took it coast-to-coast, expertly shielding a trailing Olah to score at the rim and open up a seven-point lead from which NU could not return.

Olah led the Wildcats with 19 points (8-for-16). NU's second-leading scorer, Bryant McIntosh, scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field.

The Wolverines head to Madison on Sunday, where they'll face a Badgers team that has bounced back from a brutal 2015 portion of the season and is also fighting for a tournament spot.

As it always is at the Kohl Center, a win will be tough to come by.

With that said, if the Wolverines can carry over tonight's effort from inside the arc, a win isn't out of the question. More importantly, it can't be looked at as a luxury -- Michigan should be somewhat safely in the tournament field, but you just never know. The margin for error is still too thin to take anything for granted.

Now, though, let's celebrate the bucketmaker, a player who shoots the three well (38%), just like a Beilein player should, but isn't defined by it.

And if the idea of bucking an established convention -- in this case, in the form of explosive drives to the hoop, crossovers and spin moves -- isn't the most quixotic idea in all of sports, I don't know what is.

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