With 28 seconds remaining and the score tied at 69, the ball fell into Charles Matthews’s lap. He was the go-to guy for the Michigan men’s basketball team’s final shot.
The redshirt sophomore sauntered to the left side of the court before lowering his shoulder into Purdue guard Dakota Mathias and bursting to the hoop. Matthews had a better angle. Mathias had better reflexes. The ball sailed out of bounds, and it was back to the Wolverines.
Or so they thought.
In what seemed like an eternity, the referees deliberated at the replay monitor. Then the call came in: Matthews had touched the ball last. The Boilermakers would get the final shot.
“I thought he was gonna lay that ball in with five seconds left,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He had leverage, he had everything. I don’t know where the ball got slapped down, he said it did not go off him. Apparently it must’ve.”
There was no climactic shot, though. Junior forward Moritz Wagner was called for a reach-in foul on an outlet pass to Isaac Haas. The 7-foot-2 center sank the front end of the one-and-one, and a 40-foot hail mary by Matthews clinked off the iron as No. 5 Purdue (5-0 Big Ten, 16-2 overall) avoided the upset, 70-69.
“There was a long stretch … I knew it was one of those … monitor games. They were gonna take over the game,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “Luckily, they got their foul at the end. … If the play goes the other way, we go out on top.”
Compared to the Boilermakers, Michigan (3-2, 14-4) was outmatched in size, 3-point shooting and most other statistics you can think of coming into Tuesday night’s contest. From the get-go, sniffing victory appeared to be a Sisyphean task for the Wolverines.
So in the first half when Beilein paced the sidelines, gesticulating furiously at a referee over a questionable offensive foul call, he couldn’t be blamed — Michigan needed every break it could get.
The close, late-game situation was difficult to picture the Wolverines in. After Beilein’s show of rage and more blows from Purdue, they faced a 14-point first-half deficit. But Michigan was getting its breaks in a five-minute stretch. Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson swatted Carsen Edwards and took it the other way for a fastbreak layup, and followed with two free throws the next possession. Freshman guard Jordan Poole banked a trey, and hit a runner in the lane. Matthews splashed another three. The Wolverines’ defense looked the most fearless as it had all season.
“We made our run and they made their run and obviously made it a tough game,” Haas said. “… Our defensive strategy worked well, but when those guys get going it’s hard to stop that.”
With 2:19 remaining in the half, a 14-point margin became two. But like Sisyphus’s eternal punishment, Michigan once again was exposed to the best of Purdue. The Boilermakers responded with a 3-pointer, a layup and a feed to Haas for a 39-32 halftime lead.
To begin the second half, the Wolverines went to their bread and butter — 3-pointers. Matthews stared down Haas and drilled one right in his face. Livers, who has been a recent revelation at power forward, got in the action with two corner threes. Poole hit three free throws after getting fouled behind the line to bring Purdue’s lead to only one.
After trading punches, a corner three from Matthews swirled around the rim, and the game was tied, 58-58. From there, sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson went to work with two consecutive threes to give Michigan its first lead of the game.
The raucous enjoyment of the Crisler Center crowd was short-lived. The Boilermakers were electric from 3-point land — 12-for-21 — to keep it close despite the Wolverines’ efforts. All Purdue needed in the end was Hass’s free throw to bury Michigan for good.
“We have way more room for improvement,” Livers said. “I think we could’ve done a lot more. We had a lot more chances that we should’ve taken advantage of, but basketball is basketball. Sometimes you’re gonna mess up, sometimes you’re gonna be on point. Just gotta grow.”
The Wolverines had momentum on their side in the dwindling minutes of the game. But it was a Sisyphean task after all.