The explosive, put-away-its-opponent run came later than expected for the No. 2 Michigan basketball team. After all, the Wolverines entered Thursday night’s game against Purdue as decisive, double-digit favorites.
But at the 14:46 mark of the second half, with the Wolverines trailing by a point, freshman forward Glenn Robinson III hit a 3-pointer that would soon turn into 10 unanswered points for Michigan. By time the run, which stretched to 14-2, ended, the Wolverines had an 11-point lead and control of the game, winning 68-53.
With the victory, Michigan controls its fate heading into Champaign on Sunday, where the Wolverines will have the chance to play for the presumptive No. 1 ranking. After No. 1 Duke fell to No. 25 Miami on Wednesday, a win over Illinois would almost certainly place Michigan atop the rankings for the first time since Nov. 30, 1992, which came in the midst of the Fab 5 era.
Robinson’s 3 was followed by a tip-in from freshman guard Nik Stauskas. After a timeout, sophomore point guard Trey Burke connected on a 3-pointer and Robinson followed with a 3-pointer of his own, which came on the heels of a game-changing play from freshman forward Mitch McGary.
With the ball loose near half court, McGary made a play that Wolverine fans used to see from another Chesterton, Ind. native, former guard Zack Novak. McGary out-jumped a Boilermaker, tipping the ball in the air, and beat his opponent to the ball downcourt before drawing a foul, bringing the crowd to its feet even before he emphatically waved his hands in the air at the student section.
“Whether it’s diving on the floor, or going after something or talking to the crowd — enhancing the crowd’s spirit, he’s really good at all of them,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
After the run ended, Purdue was never able to regain the composure it showed in the game’s first 25 minutes. Michigan outscored the Boilermakers in the second half, 36-20.
“I wasn’t crazy about some of our poise in the first half,” Beilein said. “We tried to hit some home runs instead of some singles. In the second half, we really played smart, both on offense and defense.”
Part of that turnaround can be attributed to Beilein calling out his team’s mental toughness at halftime.
“We’re playing against better and better teams, which you’re going to see everyday in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “Those days of playing a team that maybe you can go for some home runs and still win, it doesn’t work. We learned that when we were in Columbus.”
Burke led all scorers with 15 points — one of four Wolverines to finish in double figures — while adding eight assists. Robinson finished one rebound shy of a double-double, putting up 12 points and nine rebounds and another highlight-reel dunk.
“I like making those highlights, getting the crowd excited,” Robinson said. “It feels good to do that. … We all got excited, wanted to play defense.”
Added Beilein: “He’s got some pretty good levitation.”
Uncharacteristic of past Michigan-Purdue games, the Wolverines outrebounded the Boilermakers, 35-29, while outscoring them in the paint, 36-24.
But the first half was a very different story than the latter half. Just 1:15 into the game, after Burke beat the Purdue defense to the basket for an uncontested layup, Boilermakers coach Matt Painter called a timeout. Knowing the explosive offensive capability the Wolverines have displayed time and time again this season, Painter sensed that Burke’s layup — which gave Michigan a 5-3 lead — could springboard into an early blowout, so he called timeout.
It proved to be a good move, as the two teams changed leads eight times in the first half, and Purdue gave the Wolverines their first halftime deficit at home this season.
The story of the opening stanza was the Boilermakers’ 3-point shooting. Led by guard D.J. Byrd’s three first-half 3-pointers, Purdue shot 7-of-13 from deep in the half.
Stauskas guarded Byrd in the first half, but after leaving the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer open on multiple occasions, the Michigan coaching staff decided in the locker room to let junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. defend Byrd. It worked, as Byrd was held scoreless in the second half, and Purdue failed to connect on a single 3-point basket after halftime.
“Nik is improving like crazy with his defense,” Beilein said. “But when he was guarding D.J. Byrd, he forgot that D.J. Byrd is him — he can shoot from deep.
“Tim has really become not only really good at guarding the particular person, but getting Nik and everybody else, Glenn, where they should be. … When D.J. Byrd got going, we just said, ‘Alright, (Nik’s) still a work in process.’ ”
Burke paced Michigan in the first half, scoring seven points and adding four assists, but his 3-of-10 3-point shooting and six turnovers allowed the visiting Boilermakers to not just keep pace with the high-flying Wolverines, but enter halftime tied, 33-32.