It wasn’t a typical Michigan win, but it was a much-needed one.
With little working from 3-point range and several players battling shooting slumps, the Wolverines were able to use defense, rebounding and hustle to upset No. 18 Purdue. The win gives Michigan its third win over a team currently in the top 25 (No. 2 Maryland and No. 24 Texas lost to the Wolverines as well), and pushes Michigan one step closer to the NCAA Tournament.
Though uncharacteristic at times, the Wolverines made plenty of plays on both ends of the court to seal the win. Here are our five key plays from Saturday.
1) Irvin gets on the board
A week after getting blown out in the first half against Michigan State and Indiana, things looked familiar when Purdue led by 10 points midway through the first half. The Wolverines were missing shots, especially 3-pointers, and couldn’t do much to slow down the post-heavy Boilermakers on defense.
With Duncan Robinson and Mark Donnal in foul trouble, Caris LeVert still getting the hang of things on the court again and Derrick Walton Jr. missing all of his shots, junior guard Zak Irvin needed to step up to keep Michigan’s hopes alive.
For much of the first half, Irvin was a mess. He missed several shots badly and looked out sorts dealing with Purdue’s size inside. But two late scores, a driving baseline layup and a pair of free throws earned with a transition drive, helped get him back in rhythm.
“I can’t recall a time like that, it was a tough first half for me, I couldn’t get anything to go on the offensive end,” Irvin said. “Getting those two free throws I was able to hit got me back into a rhythm a little bit.”
2) Irvin heats up
Despite the rest of the team shooting just 1-for-12 from beyond the arc, Irvin found the net in the second half, draining back-to-back threes to ensure Michigan kept pace with the Boilermakers early on in the half.
With Michigan’s other top players struggling to find much of anything on offense, it wasn’t long before Irvin — who had just four points in Wednesday’s game over Minnesota — stole the show.
“He’s worked very hard ever since the summer and the injury to really get a rhythm back and want to take big shots,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “You just look at the contrast of him and Derrick in the Minnesota game and this game, they just flipped roles, and it was just huge for him to go in and make those big ones, especially those threes.”
3) Irvin makes it a game
As the second half wore on, two things became abundantly clear. First, Purdue was playing better basketball than Michigan. Second, it didn’t matter, because the Wolverines weren’t going away.
The Boilermakers were shooting, passing, rebounding and defending better than Michigan, but led by just six with four minutes to go. Then Irvin nailed one more three — his fourth but only his team’s fifth of the game — to pull the deficit to within three points, and it was a whole new ballgame.
“Zak was the key guy,” Beilein said. “There’s always a matchup with another team that maybe we can exploit, and we tried to use whoever was guarding Zak.”
Michigan had successfully avoided getting blown out, but needed some more help to pull off the upset win.
4) Defense wins basketball games
For much of the season, defense has been a notable sore spot for Michigan. Even after downing Purdue, the Wolverines are still ranked 147th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
But for the final 3:13 of Saturday’s game, the season’s previous defensive struggles were irrelevant, as Michigan shut out Purdue to close the game on an 11-0 run.
“For our team to win in a gritty, not pretty performance is big for our growth,” Beilein said. “I think we grew up a lot today as a team. Knowing that games are going to be tough, you’re going to have to be tougher. And so as they all mature right now, that’s a big part for us.”
The key for Michigan’s outstanding defense was eliminating second-chance opportunities. With two 7-footers and a size advantage at nearly every position. The Boilermakers are accustomed to scoring even when the first shot rims out. Instead, the Wolverines reeled in seven rebounds in the final three minutes, and became the first team to out-rebound Purdue all season.
“If you look at that, that may be the only time you see that stat,” Beilein said. “Chad Carr was batting the ball around to us as a little angel somewhere, and we were getting the ball. We were able to get enough done so that they didn’t get too many second opportunities.”
5) Walton wakes up, clinches win
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Michigan staying in contention for the win as long as it did Saturday was that it did so without perhaps its best player as of late. Three days after Derrick Walton Jr. scored a career-high 26 points at Minnesota, the junior guard failed to score a single point in the first 38 minutes of game action.
But with just over two minutes, to go, Walton drove to the rim and scored his only basket of the night on 10 attempts. It also pulled Michigan to within one point.
“There was a point in the game where people on my bench were saying ‘Get him out of there,’ and I said ‘The dude scored 26 points the other night, I’m not taking him out.’ … He only made one of them, but that was a big play to get to the point that we were there.”
After putting himself on the board, Walton returned to his role of rebounding and making clutch free throws to steal to win from Purdue.
“He’s our leader,” Irvin said.