INDIANAPOLIS — After Purdue used an 8-0 run to kick off its Big Ten Tournament semifinal matchup with the Michigan men’s basketball team Saturday, the Wolverines did something they’ve struggled to do this season — they answered back.
Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman got Michigan’s first points with a layup as the Wolverines (10-8 Big Ten, 22-12 overall) chipped away to keep things close in the first half.
But after Purdue (12-6, 26-7 overall) started the second half with another run, an Abdur-Rahkman layup rimmed out, denying Michigan its first points of the frame. Instead, the Boilermakers used a 9-0 spurt to widen the gap on their way to a 76-59 win.
“Definitely for this tournament we wanted to come out and have a good start to both halves,” said junior guard Zak Irvin. “We really weren’t able to do that today which really put us in a lull, especially in the second half, going down as much as 16. It’s really tough to come back from that.”
All afternoon, Purdue’s big men used their size to bully Michigan’s big men in the paint. Junior Mark Donnal and sophomore Ricky Doyle were tasked with defending 7-foot center A.J. Hammons for most of the game, but neither could counter his overpowering size down low.
Hammons picked up 15 first-half points, almost all courtesy of bodying a Michigan big near the basket, turning and shooting from point-blank range. He finished with a game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds.
“Hammons is a really good player,” Doyle said. “He can finish with either hand. He was hitting some really tough shots today. The challenge is he’s is a big-body guy, so you knew you had to put that constant pressure on him.”
Due to the quick turnaround after Michigan’s Friday win over Indiana and no practice time, Beilein elected to cover Hammons 1-on-1 instead of implementing a double-coverage defense.
After the game, Donnal admitted double coverage might have made the difference,
“Looking back on it, I think we probably would’ve doubled to probably start the game if we knew he was going to be hitting tough shots like he did today,” Donnal said.
In an effort to combat Hammons and 6-foot-9 forward Caleb Swanigan, Michigan coach John Beilein made use of all four of his big men, rotating in freshman forward Moritz Wagner and sophomore forward D.J. Wilson. But the Boilermakers size was too much for Michigan to contain.
Unable to compete in the paint with Purdue, Michigan relied on its shooting to stay in the game. A jumper from junior guard Zak Irvin tied the game at 21 midway through the first half, and a 3-pointer from junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. cut Purdue’s lead to single digits midway through the second. But each time, the Boilermakers responded by overpowering Michigan in the paint.
After Irvin’s jumper, Swanigan fed 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas down low, and Haas put in an easy bucket over Donnal. Following Walton’s second-half 3, Hammons pushed his way into the paint on the other end and drew a foul from Donnal — Donnal’s third of the game. Swanigan hit both of his free throws to push the Boilermakers’ lead back to double digits.
In the second half, Michigan’s shots stopped falling, and Purdue turned Wolverine misses into makes on the other end. After shooting 43 percent in the first half, Michigan struggled in the second, going 11-for-33 from the field in the final 20 minutes and finishing 6-for-25 from 3-point range.
Abdur-Rahkman — who scored a team-high 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field — was Michigan’s best option, but he got little help from teammates as the Wolverines missed seven of their final eight shots to close the game.
“We’ve been very up and down the last month with our shooting,” Beilein said. “Guys that are really good shooters haven’t been able to make shots. Now Purdue does have the best defense, you look at their stats, 3-point defense, I don’t care what defense it is, they’re the best at it, so let’s credit them instead. At the same time we did have some open looks that just didn’t go in.”
Ultimately, though, it was Michigan’s inability to compete with Purdue’s overpowering big men that was the difference in the game. The Boilermakers outscored the Wolverines 44-28 in the paint and collected 15 more rebounds than them.
The loss means Michigan still sits squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble and will have to wait until Sunday to hear if its showing in the Big Ten Tournament was enough to earn it a bid.