Four teams with NCAA Tournament hopes took the floor on Wednesday night. Two of them picked up much-needed victories, as Northwestern and Illinois pulled out home wins to build their case for a tournament berth.
Let’s recap the night’s action.
Big Ten Game of the Night:
Northwestern has been waiting for a moment like this. The Wildcats are chasing the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in history, and they took a monster step in that direction on Wednesday night.
After losing three of its last four games, including a pair of road losses last week, Northwestern returned home needing a win to stay ahead of the NCAA bubble. They did so in heart-stopping fashion, earning a 67-65 home win over Michigan thanks to a Dererk Pardon buzzer-beater that will likely go down as one of the biggest plays in Northwestern history.
The game appeared to be headed to overtime when Northwestern (21-9, 10-7 Big Ten) was inbounding the ball under its own basket with 1.7 seconds remaining. Nathan Taphorn was the trigger man, firing a baseball pass to Pardon all the way on the other baseline. Pardon had time to gather himself and go up for the game-winning layup before the tournament-starved Northwestern fans rushed the court.
Neither team took control at any point, as Northwestern took a 30-28 lead into halftime. The margin was within two points for the final nine minutes, 25 seconds, as there were five ties and four lead changes down the stretch. The win helped Northwestern reached the 10-win mark in the Big Ten for the first time since 1932-33.
Northwestern had 20 assists on 27 made field goals, shooting 52.9 percent (27-for-51) from the floor. Vic Law scored a game-high 18 points for the Wildcats, shooting 7-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-4 from behind the arc. Pardon, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, collected nine points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Bryant McIntosh added 13 points and five assists for the Wildcats.
Michigan (19-11, 9-8), which had won five of its previous six games, was led by Derrick Walton Jr., who finished with 15 points and six rebounds. The senior guard shot 4-of-8 from the 3-point line, but was just 1-of-5 from inside the arc. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 13 points, four rebounds and three assists for the Wolverines. Zak Irvin chipped in 12 points, while Moritz Wagner finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and two steals.
Both teams get one more chance to impress the committee before the Big Ten Tournament begins on March 8. Northwestern, which could still finish as high as tied for third in the conference, has a big opportunity ahead when it hosts No. 16 Purdue on Sunday. Michigan will look to bounce back when it closes out the regular season by visiting Nebraska on Sunday.
There is little separation in the Big Ten this year, and that was evident again in Wednesday’s nightcap. Illinois and Michigan went down to the wire fighting for their NCAA Tournament chances. But Michigan State’s Lourawis Nairn Jr. missed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and host Illini (18-12, 8-9) came out on top, hanging on to earn a 73-70 win over the Spartans (18-12, 10-7).
Illinois led nearly the entire way, taking a 39-33 lead into halftime before Michigan State opened the second half with a 12-4 run. But the Illini only trailed for one possession, regaining control and opening up a 58-47 lead with 10:17 to play. Illinois missed a number of free throws down the stretch, but Michigan State couldn’t take advantage and saw its two-game winning streak come to an end.
Illinois senior Malcolm Hill scored a game-high 22 points, while adding four rebounds, four assists and three steals on Senior Night. Leron Block 3-of-5 from behind the arc to add 15 points and seven rebounds. Maverick Morgan chipped in 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Freshman Miles Bridges continued to lead Michigan State, collecting 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Alvin Allis III added 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting for the Spartans. Nick Ward finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Michigan State shot a better percentage from the field, shooting 48.1 percent (25-for-52) compared to 45.0 percent (27-for-60) for Illinois. However, the Illini connected on 42.3 percent (11-for-26) on their 3-point attempts, while the Spartans shot 38.1 percent (8-for-21). Michigan State also outrebounded Illinois 33-25, but the Spartans committed 15 turnovers while forcing just seven turnovers.
Illinois has played its best ball of the season over its last two weeks to improve to 8-9 in conference play. The Illini hope to carry their momentum into the Big Ten Tournament, but will first need to visit Rutgers on Saturday. The Spartans get a chance to improve their tournament standing when they travel to Maryland on Saturday.