Hot-shooting Northwestern ends Nebraska's perfect start to Big Ten play

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AP

Hot-shooting Northwestern ends Nebraska's perfect start to Big Ten play

Good things tend to happen when the shots are falling.

Northwestern's losses this season — and even some of its wins — have followed a certain theme, one of hot starts and cool finishes. But the Wildcats shot well throughout Sunday's game at the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who were one of two remaining teams with perfect records in conference play. But the Huskers' undefeated start to conference season came to a crashing halt Sunday, as the Cats walked out of Lincoln with a 74-66 victory.

For Northwestern, the win only evened its league record at 2-2, but with four of the Cats' first five conference games coming away from Evanston, two wins in the first three of those road contests ain't too shabby at all.

Northwestern shot a sparkling 51 percent from the field in this one, a stellar 50 percent after halftime. The shooting from behind the 3-point line was particularly good, with the Cats splashing home 11 of their 24 long-range attempts. Vic Law was 5-for-6 on 3s and finished with 15 points. Scottie Lindsey led the way for Northwestern with 19 points, hitting two 3s.

The Cats also came to play defensively, limiting the Huskers' high-scoring back-court duo of Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr., who came in averaging close to a combined 45 points per game in the team's three Big Ten contests. While Webster used a furious finish to the first half to boost his scoring numbers and finish with 17 points, Watson never got going and scored just six points on the afternoon.

The Cats actually started slowly but soon caught fire as the first half wore on, at one point making five straight shots. Law hit three consecutive triples to give the Cats an eight-point edge, and that stretched to 10 on a Bryant McIntosh 3 with just two and a half minutes till halftime. But then came that Nebraska surge at the end of the first half. Jack McVeigh came off the bench to hit Nebraska's first 3-pointer of the game, and then Webster took the ball away from McIntosh to get a fast-break layup and hit a free throw to complete a three-point play. That chopped Northwestern’s lead down from 10 to four in 20 seconds, but Nebraska wasn't done. Another Cats turnover turned into another Huskers triple, and a missed 3-pointer led to another Webster breakaway, with his layup giving Nebraska the lead. Webster polished off the first half with a jaw-dropping buzzer-beating triple to cap a 14-0 run over the final minute and 42 seconds of the period.

The Huskers led by as many as seven in the early stages of the second half, but then the Cats kept bombing in the 3s. Gavin Skelly hit one to cut the gap to four, and a Law triple sliced it to two not two minutes later. Lindsey put the Cats in front with a 3-pointer and tied the game at 50 with a jumper shortly thereafter. Northwestern didn't trail again. Lindsey and Law hit back-to-back 3s to stretch the Cats' lead out to six, and though the Huskers got as close as two inside of eight minutes to play, Dererk Pardon's back-to-back jumpers coupled with Lindsey's three free throws with a little more than six minutes left kept the Cats ahead for the duration.

In addition to strong shooting from the field and from 3-point range, Northwestern also shone at the free-throw line, going 13-for-14 from the stripe.

Nebraska dominated the glass early and turned Northwestern turnovers into a decent amount of points in the first half, but the teams finished almost even in each of those categories by game's end, with 30 rebounds apiece and the Huskers holding a slight 15-14 edge in points off turnovers.

Lindsey's 19 points and Law's 15 points were joined by the double-digit point production of Pardon and McIntosh, who scored 13 and 11 points, respectively.

Webster's 17 were the most by a Nebraska player, with Michael Jacobson scoring 12 points and Evan Taylor scoring 11 points.

The win sent Northwestern to 13-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play. Next up is a Thursday road game at Rutgers.

The loss, Nebraska's first in Big Ten play, dropped the Huskers to 9-7 overall and 3-1 in the conference. They travel to play Michigan next weekend.

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

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USA TODAY

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's March magic finally ran out.

The guy who's been so fantastic throughout his senior season, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., missed a game-winning 3-point try at the buzzer, and the Wolverines fell to the Oregon Ducks by a 69-68 final score in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was an incredibly competitive game between the Big Ten Tournament champs and the Pac-12 regular-season champs, with neither side ever leading by more than six.

But Moe Wagner, who scored a career-high 26 points in Michigan's second-round win over Louisville, was pretty much a non-factor in this one, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Still, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin kept an unusually cold-shooting group of Wolverines alive with a combined 39 points, 23 of which came after halftime. D.J. Wilson also scored in double figures with 12, all coming on 3-pointers.

But Michigan, which had been on fire offensively for much of the last month, shot just 43.1 percent from the field and missed 20 of its 31 shots from behind the arc.

The Wolverines actually shot under 40 percent over the opening 20 minutes as the two defenses did good work for these typically high-scoring squads. Michigan turned the ball over seven times before the break but trailed by just two as it went to the locker room.

The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued at the outset of the second half before Oregon reached its game-high six-point lead, but Michigan responded with seven straight and grabbed its first lead of the second half around the 11-minute mark. The Ducks answered that mini surge with six straight of their own, part of a larger 10-4 spurt, before Wilson and Walton hit back-to-back triples to once again give the Wolverines a narrow advantage, this time with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Oregon and Irvin traded buckets from there, and a Walton jumper was Michigan's sixth straight make from the field, putting the Wolverines up three with under two minutes to play. But Michigan didn't score again, and Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey got back-to-back layups, the latter the game-winning one ahead of Walton's missed 3-point attempt as time ran out.

Dorsey was fantastic for the Ducks, scoring 20 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20 points. Bell had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Oregon advanced to its second straight Elite Eight with the win.

Michigan's entertaining end-of-season run is over. Entering Thursday night's game in Kansas City, the Wolverines had won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Those two losses came by a combined seven points. Add this loss in and just eight points separated Michigan from 13 consecutive wins.

Certainly this group of Wolverines will be remembered for its sensational four wins in four days at the Big Ten Tournament after that horrifying aborted takeoff, as well as for reaching the third Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons under John Beilein.

Sweet Sixteen preview: How many Big Ten teams will advance to Elite Eight?

Sweet Sixteen preview: How many Big Ten teams will advance to Elite Eight?

The Big Ten had as good an NCAA tournament as any conference through one weekend. But now the alliterative rounds begin, and it's time to see how far the league's three teams left standing can go.

Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin will continue their respective dances this weekend, with Sweet Sixteen games being played Thursday and Friday.

Will all three reach the Elite Eight? Will all three lose in the regional semifinals? Here's a preview of the three Sweet Sixteen games.

Midwest Region: No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon, 6:09 p.m., Thursday

Perhaps no team in the country is on the kind of roll the Wolverines have been on. Michigan has won seven straight and 10 of its last 12 games, with those two losses — both regular-season games — coming by a combined seven points, one in overtime and one on "The Pass" in that thrilling Northwestern game. You can point to the terrifying aborted takeoff and the ensuing run through the Big Ten Tournament as the start of something special for these Wolverines, but they've been doing this for a while now. Derrick Walton Jr. has been as good as any point guard in the country, leading an offense that has been on fire. Michigan shot a jaw-dropping 63 percent from the field in a second-round win over Louisville. That a game after it hit 16 3-pointers in its first-round win over Oklahoma State. Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson clicked at the same time in the last game, and Zak Irvin is always lethal shooting the ball.

None of this is to say Oregon will be an easy task. The Ducks have won 10 of 11 and have a whopping 31 victories on the season. They needed some huge last-minute points to barely get by 11th-seeded Rhode Island in the second round, but Oregon's been mighty impressive in its own right offensively. The Ducks average nearly 80 points a game, and sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has been lighting up the scoreboard of late, scoring 20-plus points in each of his last five games, all postseason tilts, and averaging 23.6 points a game over that stretch. Star guard Dillon Brooks is averaging 20.2 points a game over his last 14.

Hopefully the offensive fun continues and both teams score into the 90s like Michigan did in its first-round game with Oklahoma State. But the stars will determine this one, and the showdown between the guard tandems should be exciting. Michigan might be able to get an edge with its stretch bigs.

The pick: Yes, Michigan keeps rolling with Wagner and/or Wilson the difference.

Midwest Region: No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas, 8:39 p.m., Thursday

The Boilermakers might be getting overlooked for various reasons as they've reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. Purdue was the hands-down class of the Big Ten during the regular season but has been overshadowed by the unexpected runs of conference-mates Michigan and Wisconsin. Not to mention the fact that a matchup with Kansas on Thursday in Kansas City is one of the least enviable outcomes in this tournament, especially after Purdue had to sweat out first-weekend wins over Vermont and Iowa State. Still, the Boilers are better suited to go head to head with the Jayhawks than most. Purdue's size will again be of value, Caleb Swanigan one of the best players in the country. The Big Ten Player of the Year could be the national player of the year, and all he's done in two tournament games is score 36 points, grab 26 rebounds, hand out 11 assists and block four shots. Vincent Edwards has also been great in two tournament games, scoring a combined 42 points and grabbing a combined 15 rebounds. With those two cooking, these Boilers can compete with anyone, and that's without mentioning the rest of this mostly veteran lineup.

Kansas, though, as anyone who watched the Jayhawks dismantle Michigan State in the second half last Sunday knows, is very, very good. Freshman star Josh Jackson has been as impressive as any player in the tournament, and he was electric against Sparty, dropping 23 points in what ended up being a 20-point beat down by the Jayhawks. That stellar performance followed a 17-point effort in the first-round win. But Jackson isn't even Kansas' best player, as Frank Mason III could be the guy to edge Swanigan for national player of the year honors. He's averaging better than 20 points a game on the season and has been remarkably consistent since the start of the tournament, scoring 22 against UC-Davis and 20 against Michigan State. And this is a Bill Self Kansas team, so obviously it's more than a two-man show.

This could be an epic clash between two really talented teams and two teams who were their conference's best all season long. Of course, Kansas is so good — and essentially playing in a home-court environment in Kansas City — that a second straight Big Ten beat down wouldn't be out of the question either.

The pick: Kansas was too good against Michigan State, and though Purdue has been a significantly better team than Michigan State this season, Kansas looks to be too good for almost anybody. Expect more eye-popping highlights from Jackson and Mason.

East Region: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida, 8:59 p.m., Friday

The talk of the tournament is Wisconsin after its sensational second-round upset of No. 1 overall seed Villanova. The Badgers proved the selection committee it was better than a No. 8 seed — something that ended up being a bigger problem for Villanova than it was for Wisconsin, obviously — with the two veterans of those back-to-back Final Four runs, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, powering the upset. Hayes has stepped up out of quasi-nowhere after a relatively disappointing regular season. After being pegged as the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, Hayes was inconsistent throughout much of the campaign, but he showed up with a force in his team's biggest game of the season, scoring 19 points, including the game-winning basket in the game's final seconds, a Jordan-esque game-winner. Koenig added 17 points in that game and came up with some clutch shots. What else would you expect? Momentum is certainly on the Badgers' side, with five wins in six games after that nasty late-season slide. This is the Wisconsin team we all expected at season's start, and along with Hayes and Koenig are fellow starters Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, who were also around for those Final Four runs and have been coming up with their own mammoth plays through the first two rounds of this tournament. That veteran presence and March experience can't be overstated.

Florida hasn't been nearly as impressive as all the other teams discussed so far, just 3-3 in its last six games, two of those losses back-to-back defeats to Vanderbilt, which made a first-round exit from this tournament. But here the Gators are after wins over East Tennessee State and Virginia, big wins, too, coming by an average of 20.5 points a game. That win over Virginia was a bludgeoning of a good team, though the Cavaliers didn't come anywhere close to ready to play in that one, not even mustering 40 points, a real weak showing from a No. 5 seed. In fact, Florida's last four wins are double-digit victories over tournament teams. Prior to these two March games, the Gators beat both Arkansas and South Carolina, two teams who have had good showings in the Big Dance. The most productive player for Florida in this tournament has been Devin Robinson, who has totaled 38 points and 18 rebounds in the two wins.

As mentioned, momentum is on Wisconsin's side. The veteran experience of these long tournament runs in recent seasons is invaluable, and if Koenig and Hayes keep making those late-game plays, the Badgers seem unbeatable right now. And, after Duke went down to South Carolina last weekend, it kind of seems like Wisconsin is suddenly the favorite in the East Region.

The pick: Badgers keep Badgers-ing. Remember when we wanted to rename March "Izzo"? Maybe we should rename it "Wisconsin." This could make it three Elite Eight trips in four seasons. Why not three Final Four trips in four seasons, too?

Picking the rest

Only three games in the Sweet Sixteen feature Big Ten teams, but you probably want picks from the other five, right?

Well, here goes:

— West Region: No. 4 West Virginia over No. 1 Gonzaga
— West Region: No. 2 Arizona over No. 11 Xavier
— South Region: No. 4 Butler over No. 1 North Carolina
— South Region: No. 3 UCLA over. No. 2 Kentucky
— East Region: No. 7 South Carolina over No. 3 Baylor