ANN ARBOR, Michigan — No one expected Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to hit the big shot on Saturday night. Not even Michigan coach John Beilein, who joked about it in his postgame press conference.
But that's exactly what happened, as the freshman drilled the game-deciding 3-point shot with less than a minute to go, helping the Wolverines (11-7, 4-2 Big Ten) escape with a 56-54 win over Northwestern.
"Mohammed was the guy, they were going to leave him open all day," Beilein said. "He's been working on his shot, and it has been getting closer and closer. I'm not that surprised, knowing the volume of shots and the big shots he hit in high school, but we just haven't seen it here yet."
While Northwestern crowded Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin in the final minute, Abdur-Rahkman stepped up. He found out he'd get his first career start in warmups.
"It was kind of a surprise to me," said Abdur-Rahkman, who finished with nine points. "As soon as the ball tipped, it went away, because there's no time for butterflies or anything like that."
LeVert had 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists, and Derrick Walton, Jr. chipped in 14 points.
Michigan took the lead for good at 50-49 on LeVert's layup with 5:04 left and stretched its lead to four on Zak Irvin's 3-pointer just over a minute later.
Alex Olah's layup pulled Northwestern (10-8, 1-4) within two with 42 seconds left and the Wildcats had a chance to tie or win after LeVert's missed jumper with 17 seconds left. But Bryant McIntosh missed a floater in the final seconds that would have tied the game.
"My guys are playing their tails off, and they're fighting," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "It hurts. It's part of the process. I'm really proud of my team, and there is a lot of basketball to be played. I feel like my guys are being tested. They keep getting their hearts ripped out, and you got to keep fighting. That was a tough loss."
Olah had 22 points, one off his career high, and JerShon Cobb added 13 points for the Wildcats.
Both teams entered the game with struggling offenses. Michigan was No. 11 in the Big Ten in scoring offense (66.1 points per game) and Northwestern (65.2 ppg) was tied with Nebraska at No. 12.
But the Wolverines came out hot, nailing their first four 3-point attempts, building a 25-11 lead with an 18-0 run midway through the first half while the Wildcats missed seven consecutive shots.
Northwestern refocused on working the ball inside, which led to Olah scoring 11 straight and 16 total during a 20-7 run that spanned both halves and gave the Wildcats a 39-34 lead with 15 minutes to go.
The Wolverines eventually slowed him down, crashing the paint with multiple defenders down the stretch. Olah scored just four points in the final 17:40.
"He's a big guy," Michigan forward Max Bielfeldt said. "He's a really talented player, and he had his way in there a little bit, but we switched things up on him. . We went to the 1-3-1 zone, which changed the whole dynamic of their offense."
Michigan: Spike Albrecht was held out of the game, while recovering from an upper respiratory infection. This was the first game Albrecht, who averages 27.7 minutes, 5.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, missed all season. ... Ricky Doyle played 10 minutes in the first half, but did not see second-half action, due to an illness.
Northwestern: The Wildcats are riding a four-game losing streak in Big Ten play, after knocking off Rutgers 51-47 in the conference opener. . Northwestern has lost seven straight to Michigan since a 74-60 win on Jan. 18, 2011. ... The two teams meet again in Evanston, Illinois on March 3.
Michigan: Travels to Rutgers on Tuesday.
Northwestern: Hosts Ohio State on Thursday.
Freshman Bryant McIntosh has led the way for Northwestern this year, averaging a team-high 12.4 points per game. But McIntosh struggled on Saturday, finishing with four points on 2-of-6 shooting.
With a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, McIntosh came up short on a floater.
"That is who I wanted to have the ball," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "That's what I told him. That kid is going to have the ball in that situation a lot of times in his career. He is going to deliver a lot more than he doesn't. There's no one that cares more than that kid. It just didn't happen tonight, and I feel awful."
YOUNG WOLVERINES STEPPING UP
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman nearly doubled his career total of 10 coming into the game. His big game was the latest example of Michigan's rookie class showing signs of growing maturity.
Ricky Doyle finished with 15 points in a win over Minnesota, Aubrey Dawkins had 20 in an overtime win vs. Illinois, and Kam Chatman continues to make progress.
"I hope that is the direction we're going," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "The development of our depth is a huge piece of the puzzle right now, and it's not there. Mohammed has been there, done that one time. When you have the young guys out there, they're going to be up and down there for a bit, and we have to continue to massage their attitudes, to make sure they stay positive."