After Derrick Walton Jr. missed his third straight open look in the first half against Purdue, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein called him over to the bench.
“Make the shots, damn it,” Beilein told Walton.
The advice wasn’t a quick fix. The junior guard missed his first nine shots on Saturday, but Beilein’s belief in sticking with Walton paid off on his 10th attempt from the field, a drive to the hoop that pulled the Wolverines (9-4 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) within one point of the 18th-ranked Boilermakers (8-5, 20-6) and eventually helped push them to a 61-56 win.
With just two minutes left in the first half and Michigan trailing by three, Walton put his head down and penetrated toward the rim, laying in a right-handed lay-up against Purdue big man A.J. Hammons, who fouled him on the play.
“Honestly, I didn’t see it,” Walton said. “I kind of got clobbered, kind of reacted when the crowd reacted.”
The layup electrified Crisler Center and set Michigan up for a come-from-behind win. Walton missed the ensuing free throw, but a defensive stop on Purdue’s next possession led to a made jumper from junior guard Zak Irvin, giving Michigan its first lead since early in the first half.
The Wolverines put together two more stops, forcing the Boilermakers to foul. Walton went to the line twice in the game’s final 15 seconds, knocking down four straight free throws to clinch the win.
For 38 minutes, though, it looked like Walton and Michigan’s shooting woes would be the latest excuse in another home loss after lackluster performances spelled disaster against Indiana and Michigan State at home last week. Even with Walton’s early 0-for-9 from the field, Beilein didn’t want anyone else quarterbacking his defense.
“There was a point in the game where some people on my bench were saying, ‘Get him out of there,’ ” Beilein said. “But the dude scored 26 points the other night. I’m not taking him out.”
On a day in which Michigan couldn’t find its shooting rhythm — it finished the game 5-for-20 from 3-point range and shot at a 36-percent clip overall from the field — it took grit from Walton and his teammates to steal the game against a bigger Purdue team.
“Shooting numbers right now are just going out the window at this point,” Walton said. “When guys look back at the stat sheet, we don’t really care at this point. We just want to make sure that we did exactly what we needed to and then a little more than needed.”
Zak Irvin did more than needed in the second half. After getting bullied early by Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan and going just 2-for-7 from the field in the first frame, Irvin flipped the script. Irvin went off for four 3s in the second half, including two on back-to-back possessions to answer two straight treys from Purdue. Irvin finished with a game-high 22 points and was the only Wolverine to reach double digits in scoring.
In the first half, it looked like Purdue’s big men would overpower Michigan’s, just as they had five weeks earlier in West Lafayette. Swanigan got easy looks in the paint, as did Hammons and 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. But in the second half, Michigan outrebounded Purdue 23-18 and outscored the Boilermakers in the paint.
“I’m just proud of how hard we fought,” Irvin said. “I don’t think anyone would’ve expected us to outrebound them, get more points in the paint. Our goal is always to hold them to under 40 percent (from the field), and they shot 39 percent, which is huge, and you really win this game on defense.”
Swanigan outmatched Irvin early, bodying his way into the paint and putting in easy buckets. Forward Isaac Haas did the same against Michigan forwards Mark Donnal and Moritz Wagner, using his 7-foot-2 frame to bully them down low, but the Wolverines were able to hang in and take just a four-point deficit into the locker room at half time, setting up a second-half comeback.
Beilein called it a “gritty not pretty” performance and said that it’s proof that this team can win in more than one way.
The win gives Michigan its second victory over a ranked opponent, the other coming last month against No. 3 Maryland, and helps boost the Wolverines resume come NCAA Tournament time. The win also marked the return of senior guard Caris LeVert. LeVert missed the prior 11 games due to a lower left leg injury and was a game-time decision. He came off the bench seven minutes into the first half and tallied 11 minutes in the frame but did not score. He did not play in the second half.
Beilein said LeVert is still getting back into basketball shape and will continue to evaluate his playing time.