On Senior Day, it was a sophomore star who shined the brightest overall for the Wolverines, but a senior who made the biggest play.
Sophomore Moritz Wagner kickstarted Michigan's effort against No. 14 Purdue, scoring 12 of Michigan's first 23 points. Purdue's Caleb Swanigan was completely out of his element against the mobile Wagner, who tallied 22 first-half points, doing it both inside and outside (4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the first half). Michigan went into the half up 45-30 and led by as many as 22 in the second.
Purdue, however, stormed back and cut Michigan's lead to six with just over two minutes to play. Memories of earlier defeats (e.g. Virginia Tech) resurfaced.
Derrick Walton (17 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) then made the play Michigan needed most, burying an off-balance 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and push Michigan's lead back to nine late, a crucial shot in the face of Purdue's surge. Michigan held on for an 82-70 victory, moving to 19-10 (9-7) on the season and most likely locking up an NCAA Tournament berth.
Michigan showcased its diametrical brand of basketball when, late in the first half, DJ Wilson and Wagner collaborated on a pick-and-roll, with Wilson finding Wagner on the dive for an easy two. Yes, Purdue had the size and physicality advantage, but in space its frontline players looked like Chris Graham trying to stay with Anthony Gonzalez in the 2006 iteration of The Game.
There is another version of this game in which the Boilermakers' size overwhelms Michigan with a barrage of putbacks, dunks and baby hooks. Today's game did not offer that version. Instead, Michigan used its speed and offensive precision to outmaneuver Purdue's frontline advantage.
After a 66 percent mark in the first half, it was unlikely the Wolverines could continue hitting at that clip. Wagner picked up his third foul, too, with 15:48 to play. And even though Michigan missed its first seven 3-pointers of the second half, Purdue couldn't get closer than 11 (until late). Michigan's defensive shape, paired with a number of missed bunnies by Haas et al, kept the Boilers at bay for most of the second half.
Even when Purdue wasn't missing relatively easy looks in the paint, Michigan's defense forced turnovers via well-executed double teams and traps. Michigan is not an elite defensive team by any stretch, but they've improved significantly since the early part of the Big Ten schedule, when several opponents shelled the U-M D (Illinois, 85 points; Iowa, 86 points; Maryland, 77 points; Nebraska, 85 points).
Michigan created some breathing room for itself when Xavier Simpson swished an open corner three, then Wilson and Duncan Robinson followed suit with triples of their own to make it 66-44 just before the penultimate media timeout. The Wolverines appeared ready to cruise to an easy victory, another statement win at home.
Purdue, however, wouldn't go away so easily. A 13-2 run cut Michigan's lead to 11 with just over five minutes to play. Fittingly, with Michigan needing an answer, Wagner scored his first (and only) points of the second half to push the lead back to 13.
Purdue kept charging, eventually cutting the deficit to six points with 2:13 left. Walton's shot-clock-beating three took the wind out of Purdue's sails, and Michigan was afforded the opportunity of giving its seniors a standing ovation from the Crisler crowd.
Ignoring the clunker of a win at Rutgers and the overtime loss at Minnesota, Michigan has hit its stride at the right time. For even the most paranoid, this victory probably gets Michigan into the tournament field. Now, Michigan can focus on improving its seeding with road victories at Northwestern and Nebraska, then a strong showing in the conference tournament.
As for the seniors, it's almost hard to believe that the careers of Walton and Irvin are near their end. Both have enjoyed great highs and experienced lows. Walton has turned it up of late, while Irvin has, for the most part, struggled mightily this season.
Whatever happens, if Irvin can find himself the rest of the way, no one will remember the rest of it. Hit a big shot, make a big play, keep the season going -- do any of those things, and history smiles fondly.