WEST LAFAYETTE — It would have been easy for Michigan to get swallowed up on Thursday night.
Just like in Chapel Hill, and more recently in Lincoln, the Wolverines faced a halftime deficit against a high-octane offense and a defense that had their number in an environment as hostile as it gets.
In response, Michigan’s offense went nuts to begin the second half, making every shot it took and averaging 2.286 points per possession through the first 10 minutes of the frame.
It was an offensive onslaught that would be good enough to put away almost any game. Not against Purdue, though. The Boilermakers stood tall, taking each punch the Wolverines threw and delivering one of their own in response en route to an eventual 92-88 victory.
For nearly 11 minutes, though, the teams played the most entertaining stretch of basketball in any Michigan game this season, one that yielded one of the best individual performances for a Wolverine in any game this season — from senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
The stretch started unassuming enough, with a missed three from junior forward Moritz Wagner. But redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews was there to clean up the miss, laying in a putback to get the ball rolling.
That was immediately answered by a 3-pointer from Boilermaker guard Dakota Mathias. And away the teams went.
For every shot there was a counter. The teams combined to shoot 24-for-30 from the field in the opening 10:50 of the second half.
“This is what you come to a Big Ten school to play basketball for,” said Purdue forward Vincent Edwards. “… That second half was a dream to play basketball in. So, I mean, we all soaked it in.”
It was the type of half that would have left Michigan grasping at air earlier in the season. Maybe that would have happened on Thursday, too, if it weren’t for Abdur-Rahkman.
The senior hit a layup at the 18:28 mark. Then he stole the ball away from Purdue guard Carsen Edwards to start a fastbreak that ended in a dunk from Matthews that gave the Wolverines the lead for the first time in the half. Then Abdur-Rahkman hit three go-ahead 3-pointers in the span of five minutes, with the last one being a fall-away job from the left corner with 9:38 remaining.
When the stretch was over, Abdur-Rahkman had scored 14 of his 26 total points in just 11 minutes.
“I just got a couple easy shots — a layup and a wide-open three — and got going early, and just played confident.” Abdur-Rahkman said.
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “To have Muhammad-Ali play that way is the expectation we have of seniors. That’s the trend I hope we’re going to see the rest of this season. (It’s) a little bit about the time when Derrick Walton took off, was about this time last year.”
What the game means for Abdur-Rahkman’s future aside, the performance was one that nearly gave Michigan another marquee win. It was one that nearly thrust the Wolverines head-first into national prominence.
But it didn’t.
When Abdur-Rahkman hit his first layup of the half, Purdue guard P.J. Thompson answered with a 3-pointer. Matthews’ dunk was answered with a bucket from Boilermaker center Isaac Haas in the post. All three of Abdur-Rahkman’s go-ahead 3-pointers were erased by a Purdue bucket within the next minute. Twice, it was on the next possession.
In the end, the Wolverines were outlasted by a tireless Boilermaker team, as the memorable back-and-forth was followed by an 11-2 run from Purdue that ultimately spelled doom for Michigan.
Yet, for 11 minutes, the two teams stared each other down, daring the other to blink and lose control of the game. It didn’t matter how close the defender was or if the shooter’s feet were set, the shots were falling from wherever they were taken.
For 11 minutes, the Wolverines and the Boilermakers showed what they’re each capable of when they’re on their games. Purdue simply proved it for longer.