After many of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s most recent games — both wins and losses — a common theme has been brought up in postgame press conferences.
The Wolverines didn’t play a full 40 minutes of basketball.
Whether it was coming out lackadaisical to start the second half of a loss at the Breslin Center, or long stretches of stagnant play in scares against lesser opponents in Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State, Michigan never seemed to be able to maintain a consistent level of play in its entirety.
Until Thursday night.
Just five days after a six-point loss in West Lafayette, the Wolverines met third-ranked Purdue again, this time in Ann Arbor with another crack at their best win of the season. The overarching sentiment among the team after that first meeting was that they could hang with the Boilermakers, and they wouldn’t miss their opportunity at home.
“I think the fact that we played them before just gave us kind of a sense of, we played them and we didn’t lose that bad to them at their home,” freshman forward Moussa Diabate said. “So logically, they come to our home, it’s a different ballgame.”
Thursday night, they played — and acted — like it for a full 40 minutes. The energy Michigan brought, both on the court and on the bench, was integral in a statement 82-58 win.
“We just talk about the sense of urgency,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “We gotta go now because we don’t have time. We don’t have enough games to have games slip away from us. So we have to take advantage of the ones that are in front of us. And we did tonight.”
From the opening tip, that sense of urgency was clear. The Wolverines made hustle plays on the court, forcing turnovers and diving for loose balls. Diabate energized the crowd with dunk after dunk, while sophomore center Hunter Dickinson celebrated every made shot.
Whenever Purdue cut into a lead and seemed poised for a comeback, Michigan stifled it. When the Boilermakers tied the game midway through the first half after the Wolverines controlled the early portion of the game, Michigan locked in defensively and Dickinson led them it a 7-0 run. In the second half, back-to-back transition 3-pointers from Brooks and freshman wing Caleb Houstan put the Wolverines up by 22 with just under eight minutes to play, stifling any chance of a Purdue comeback.
That energy was reflected by the bench. After every important play early on, Michigan’s reserves pumped up the crowd, making sure to sustain the momentum and keep the Boilermakers on edge before they could get settled.
With just one day of rest in between games and a late arrival following Tuesday’s win in State College, that energy was all the more important. It’s difficult to win two games in three days against any Big Ten opponent, let alone one against one of the conference’s best.
“We had a built-in excuse to come in and say, ‘You know what? I’m just tired. I don’t have it,’ ” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But I love how we responded, and we didn’t make any excuses for it. Nor was I gonna allow us to, but with that, I credit our student-athletes. They’re the ones who’s playing the game. They’re the ones bringing the energy, they’re the ones competing. And they didn’t allow that physical fatigue, because it can mess with you mentally.”
Howard and Dickinson have both mentioned that a playing a full 40 minutes comes down to mental toughness just as much as it does physical play. It’s communicating and staying engaged just as much as it is making shots and guarding aggressively. Thursday, for Howard, that was the key:
“I think mentally, they were 80% stronger mentally than they were physically.”