We just didn’t come ready’

John Eligon

INDIANAPOLIS – Tournaments are a time for stars to shine, and Michigan standout LaVell Blanchard proved that Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse.

The junior forward took over early, and finished with 26 points to lead the 10th-seeded Wolverines (11-17) to a 72-51 rout of No. 7 seed Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

It was the fourth straight loss for NU (16-13), which can only hope to end its streak this season in a postseason tournament. Invitations to the NCAA Tournament will be handed out Sunday, with National Invitation Tournament bids coming shortly after. NU is most likely headed to the NIT.

“This performance tonight knocks the stuffings out of you a little bit,” NU head coach Bill Carmody said. “If you play like this, you don’t want to go to the NIT. It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but it’s still a prestigious tournament, and you’re supposed to showcase what you’ve done for the year. If things don’t change, then what’s the sense?”

NU was hampered by another poor shooting performance, knocking down just a third of its shots from the field. During the four-game skid, the Wildcats have shot less than 40 percent three times and less than 30 percent twice.

Winston Blake, NU’s regular season scoring leader, was 4-for-11 from the floor, including 2-for-6 from behind the arc, for 12 points.

Senior forward Tavaras Hardy, playing in his final Big Ten game, was NU’s sole offensive threat. Using a combination of accurate shooting and strong inside moves, he amassed 17 points. But even Hardy made just six of 15 field goals.

“You’re down, you come back and you’re pressing, and maybe you’re a little tired,” Carmody said. “A few of our guys missed some wide-open shots that they usually knock down.”

Michigan, on the other hand, found a hot hand right off the bat. Not even NU’s heralded switching-zone defense could stop the Wolverines.

Blanchard accounted for much of Michigan’s outside success, making five of seven three-point attempts and nine of 14 overall. He repeatedly came off screens to square up against NU defenders and didn’t hesitate to step back for open looks.

“I just told them when (Blanchard is) facing the basket, don’t let him shoot the ball, make him put the ball on the ground,” Carmody said. “We weren’t able to do that. You have to crowd him. When a guy gets going, contesting the shot doesn’t do anything.”

Blanchard helped vault Michigan to an early 20-9 lead, scoring 11 straight points.

After nailing two long-range jumpers in a row, Blanchard picked off an NU pass at halfcourt and took it the other way for a layup and a foul. His free throw and jumper on Michigan’s next possession gave the Wolverines an 11-point lead with 11:32 remaining in the first half.

“(Blanchard) came out and had a great game,” a soggy-eyed Collier Drayton said following the game. “He couldn’t miss, even if we did contest him a little. He’s a great player and he carried the team on his back tonight.”

The Wolverines opened their biggest first-half lead – 13 points – after guard Leon Jones hit a three-pointer with 8:52 left. NU cut the deficit to four, but Michigan managed to push its lead to eight, 36-28, at the intermission.

The Cats came out of a timeout and staged a 14-5 run in the middle portion of the second half to pull within five. But instead of biting their nails, the Wolverines picked up their defense.

Michigan sealed NU’s passing and cutting lanes, forcing the Cats into ill-advised shots. Late in the second period, NU settled for quick threes on six of seven possessions and missed them all.

“We prepared for them in a way that they get the backdoor layup or they usually get three-point shots,” Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker said. “Their offense is geared for either one of them, so we thought that if we could just help out on a couple of players, then that could give us a bit of added weak-side help.”

With the win, Michigan avenged its 58-54 loss to NU on Jan. 16 in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Wolverines will face No. 2 seed Ohio State today at 5:40 p.m. in the second round.

Although NU is packing its bags and heading home early, the Cats still have postseason aspirations. But for now, the NCAA Tournament and the NIT couldn’t be further from NU’s mind.

“I thought we were feeling a little better after the Indiana game,” Hardy said. “We didn’t play as well as we could have (against Indiana), but we were starting to get back to how we could play. Tonight, regardless of confidence, we just didn’t come ready. It’s embarrassing for us as players.”

The Daily’s Joe Ziomek contributed to this report.