Dave Sobolewski toed the free-throw line with 15:37 left in the second half against Michigan. The Northwestern point guard was fouled by Trey Burke on a three-point attempt, so he had three free throws in front of him and a golden opportunity to cut further into the Wolverines' once comfortable lead.
The Wildcats had opened the second half on a 10-4 run to cut Michigan's 15-point halftime edge down to nine, 40-31. Alex Olah had come alive to hit six of those points and Northwestern, for the first time in the game, had the momentum to maybe plant a shot on the chin of the No. 1 team in the country.
Sobolewski breathed deep, took a single dribble and spun the ball in his hands. His first shot was short, barely grazing the front of the rim. His second shot did the same. Perhaps overcompensating for two near air-balls, Sobolewski's third shot was too strong, bouncing off the back of the rim before Tim Hardaway Jr. came down with the long rebound.
Those three misses seemed to pop Northwestern's just-inflated balloon and Michigan ran away with an easy 68-46 win.
The Wolverines mounted a 10-2 run over the ensuing six minutes, while Northwestern missed eight of its next nine shots from the field. There seemed to be a lid over the basket as the Wildcats missed an assortment of 3-pointers, layups and tip-ins from that point on.
Jared Swopshire missed a triple and Reggie Hearn wasn't able to convert the tip-in. Alex Marcotullio came up with a steal near midcourt but missed a shot from beyond the arc; Tre Demps corralled the rebound but blew the uncontested putback. Olah missed a dunk and it was Swopshire's turn to miss the tip-in.
The Wildcats, who had hit four of their first five second-half shots before Sobolewski's errant free throws, made just 6-of-23 afterward. That's not going to cut it when a team is trying to knock down the bully on his home floor. The Wolverines, their momentum restored, outscored Northwestern 28-15 the rest of the way.
This is not to suggest that Northwestern would have pulled off a stunning upset of the top-ranked Wolverines if Sobolewski had made one, two or all three of those shots. The Wildcats probably would have come up short if they had hit most of those easy shots they missed down the stretch, too.
The bottom line is that they simply had no answer for Burke, who collected 18 points and eight assists, or the firepower Michigan possesses at every position on the floor.
But at least it could have been a game for a while.
Northwestern's struggles from the free-throw line this season have been well documented. The Wildcats hit just 4-of-8 from the line against the Wolverines and have now made just 65.4 percent on the year, 10th-best in the Big Ten.
No one has struggled more than Sobolewski, whose 0-for-3 performance dropped his season average to 57.8 percent. That's common for a 7-footer maybe, but not a point guard. What makes it more troubling is that last season Sobolewski was a 73.5-percent shooter from the charity stripe.
It didn't make the difference in tonight's loss to a more talented Michigan squad. But it could prove to be the razor-thin margin between a win and a loss against a lesser opponent later this season.