In many ways, Saturday’s game was Michigan basketball at its worst. The Wolverines shot just 25 percent from 3-point range, the aforementioned trio — also Michigan’s top three scorers — combined for just 10 points on 3 of 15 shooting, and thanks to foul trouble and poor shooting performances, the entire team looked out of sync for the vast majority of the Wolverines’ matchup with No. 18 Purdue.
But by the time the final buzzer had sounded, it was clear that Saturday’s game was really Michigan basketball at its best. Behind rebounding, defense and driving to the rim, the Wolverines found new avenues to success when their typical paths were closed.
They were rewarded with a much-needed signature win.
“It was a gritty, not pretty performance, and it’s big for our program,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I think we grew up a lot today as a team. Games are gonna be tough, you’re gonna have to be tougher.
“There’s different ways to win. We’ve got to take what the defense gives us. It is good for our guys to realize we’re more than just (shooters).”
Given the size and strength advantage the Boilermakers possess, Michigan’s numbers are rather staggering. The Wolverines reeled in 39 rebounds — not only one of its highest totals in conference play but also the first time Purdue has been out-rebounded all season. Michigan also outscored the Boilermakers in the paint, 24-22 — even though besting Purdue’s two 7-footers and 6-foot-9 standout Caleb Swanigan is literally no small task.
Despite the effort, the game wasn’t decided until the Wolverines’ defense — a legitimate sore spot all season long — woke up and held Purdue scoreless over the final 3:13 to go on an 11-0 run and steal the win.
There were no awe-inspiring 3s, fast break steal-and-scores or other pretty plays. Michigan won because it toughened up and out-played the Boilermakers at their own game.
“If you look at this (box score), we outrebounded Purdue — that may be the only time you ever see that stat,” Beilein said. “We got it done somehow — Chad Carr, I think, was batting the ball around to us as a little angel somewhere, and we were getting the ball. We ended being able to get enough done so they didn’t get too many second opportunities.”
Added Michigan guard Zak Irvin: “We keep growing; each game, each day. It showed this afternoon.”
The growth Irvin is talking about was evident on Saturday, but was nowhere to be found the previous week. The Wolverines also struggled to create much offense and make shots against Michigan State and Indiana, but neglected to step up in other areas. The results were respective 26-6 and 25-0 first-half runs that ran Michigan out of the building.
This week, however, was better.
“Last week we weren’t making shots and we weren’t playing defense, and we just got embarrassed out there,” Irvin said. “Today we still weren’t making the shots we usually make, but our defense didn’t waver and that’s huge.”
Added Walton: “Tonight was a really big step for us. Out shooting woes didn’t trickle down to other elements of our game. Guys kept fighting, guys kept rebounding,kept boxing out, kept running … I’m just really proud that we kept fighting.”
Michigan trailed for most of the game, couldn’t make shots and had a clear size disadvantage, but through, hustle, grit, and an uncharacteristic dedication, it didn’t matter.
It wasn’t the Michigan basketball anyone was used to, but the Wolverines are happy to change styles for a win.
“They didn’t shoot well,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “I always say playing well and shooting well are two different things, but with Michigan, that’s their deal. They shoot a lot of 3s, they’re a perimeter-oriented team, so when they’re not shooting well, they’ve got to get it from some other avenue, and tonight their hustle really paid off for them.”