The Michigan men’s basketball team’s upset of No. 18 Purdue on Saturday wasn’t the first signature win the Wolverines have picked up this season, but it certainly looked much different than the others.
In Michigan’s wins against No. 24 Texas and No. 2 Maryland, the Wolverines excelled largely because of their knack for hitting long-range bombs —14 3-pointers against the Longhorns and 11 against the Terrapins.
But thanks to pressure from elite guard Raphael Davis, the Boilermakers snuffed out Michigan’s 3-point chances, leaving the team with just five successful triples. And things weren’t any easier for the Wolverines down low — in the teams’ first meeting this season back in January, the monstrous trio of 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan, 7-foot A.J. Hammons and 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas helped Purdue outrebound Michigan 36-28 and outscore it in the paint 42-18.
Instead of succumbing to the size disadvantage, though, the Wolverines played one of their more inspired, physical games of the season and wound up beating the Boilermakers in both categories — 39-35 in the rebounding battle, 24 points to 22 in the paint.
It was the first time Purdue has been outrebounded all season, and seven different Michigan players grabbed three or more boards. With the performance, the Wolverines effectively proved they have what it takes to pull off what they called a “gritty, not pretty” win without shooting particularly well.
They also managed to hold Purdue scoreless for the final three minutes of the game, sealing the victory with an 11-0 run.
“There are different ways to win,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We have to take what the defense gives us. That was surprising, because you can’t get to the rim as well as you’d like to (against Purdue). … It is good for our guys to realize that we’re more than just (a 3-point shooting team).”
Despite giving up 35 pounds in his defensive matchup with Swanigan, junior forward Zak Irvin was crucial to the Wolverines’ effort. Swanigan still finished the game with 14 points, but Irvin made a point of making the talented freshman work hard on the defensive end as well.
“(Swanigan’s) a great player, a great freshman,” Irvin said. “We were battling down low, but then also, he has to guard me on the perimeter on the other end. That’s just the mindset I had in the second half.”
It worked perfectly — Irvin scored a team-high 22 points, including a huge mid-range floater that gave the Wolverines a 57-56 lead with 1:09 remaining in the game.
“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.”
Irvin was really the only Wolverine who had any kind of shooting success, finishing as the only double-digit scorer and hitting four of Michigan’s five 3-pointers.
His explosion was key on a day when the Wolverines’ best scorers couldn’t knock down shots. Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. only made one basket Saturday, and senior guard Caris LeVert — who played in his first game since sustaining a lower-left-leg injury Dec. 30 — missed the only shot he took in his 11 minutes on the floor.
But though those two guards weren’t able to contribute to the scoring, they boosted Michigan’s defensive effort by combining for 12 rebounds despite the Boilermakers’ daunting size. And in the end, that effort was enough to pull off the upset on a day when the Wolverines honored the late Chad Carr and his family’s ChadTough foundation.
“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.”