WEST LAFAYETTE – Just two weeks ago, it appeared that the Michigan basketball bus was heading straight for Bracketville.
But Saturday’s 84-70 loss to Purdue – Michigan’s third in a row – made it clear that the wheels have fallen off.
The injury-plagued Wolverines were out-shot, out-hustled, out-defended and out-smarted by a last-place Boilermaker team. Although a desperate late-game Michigan run made the final score appear less lopsided, there was no doubt who was the better team at Mackey Arena.
“They showed a lot of savvy beating us, because they’re going through the same thing we’re going through, losing starters, and they lost even more,” Michigan center Courtney Sims said. “So you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
For a brief moment, it looked like Michigan stood a chance. After the Wolverines controlled the opening tip, forward Graham Brown posted up, drew a double-team and dished the ball to Sims for the wide-open slam. On its first defensive possession, Michigan hounded the Boilermakers, forcing an awkward miss by Purdue forward Matt Kiefer as the shot clock expired.
Those first two possessions would be the Wolverines’ highlights. And that 2-0 lead would be their last.
During the rest of the first half, Michigan may have played its worst basketball of the season. Offensively, the Wolverines struggled to convert open looks and committed eight first-half turnovers. Defensively, Michigan looked even sloppier. Purdue’s undermanned squad blew by the Wolverines and took advantage of a seemingly never-ending supply of open lay-ups and jumpers by shooting 65 percent in the first half.
“I thought we had good shots – we just didn’t make them,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “When those baskets weren’t going in, you could just see the energy being drained from our defense. Having said that, we’ve got to get tougher and fight against that.”
With the Boilermakers asserting their superiority on both ends of the floor, it didn’t take long for their lead to balloon. The situation already looked bleak when Purdue held a 30-19 lead with six minutes to go in the half.
It looked bleaker once Purdue super-sub Marcus Green took over.
The freshman caught fire in the last 5:27 of the half, drilling three triples and outscoring the entire Wolverine squad, 13-8, during that span. The coup de grace came in the closing seconds. With the shot-clock winding down, Green drove from the top of the key, stepped back, and swished a 17-footer, giving Purdue a 47-27 halftime lead.
“We sort of beat ourselves on defense,” Sims said. “We let them hit all those threes, and we couldn’t defend No. 20 (Green).”
Entering the second half down by 20 points, Michigan needed a monumental turnaround to get back within striking distance. But a comeback never materialized. The Boilermakers maintained a double-digit lead for the entire half and never let Michigan score more than six unanswered points.
Although Michigan never figured out how to stop Purdue, it did develop some offensive flow as the game progressed. Sophomore Ron Coleman finished the game with a career-high 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting and senior co-captain Chris Hunter chipped in with 16 points, a season-high.
While Coleman and Hunter turned in solid performances, Michigan’s leading scorer, Daniel Horton, was nowhere to be found. With backcourt mates Dion Harris, Lester Abram and Jerret Smith all out of action, the Wolverines hoped Horton could pick up some of the slack on the perimeter. But Horton scored just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting.
“I thought (Horton) struggled tremendously,” Amaker said “With the personnel we have right now, if he’s not going to score, it’s going to be tough for us.”
In a sight all-too-familiar for Michigan, Horton collided with a Purdue player and limped off to the trainer’s room with 15 minutes to go in the game. He returned soon after.
“It’s pretty sore right now,” Horton said of his thigh after the game. “It’s something that’s been happening all season, getting kneed in the thigh. But it always happens in practice. This time it just happened in the game, so I’ll be all right.”
The Wolverines’ brightest stretch came in the last few minutes, with the outcome already obvious. Earning their most substantial playing time of the season, backup guards Hayes Grooms, Sherrod Harrell and Jevohn Shepherd helped Michigan go on a 17-9 run to finish the game. Shepherd looked especially impressive, earning career-highs in points (nine) and rebounds (six).
“I thought with Hayes Grooms and Jevohn Shepherd, I could find some good things from players who normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity,” Amaker said. “I’m pleased with that. If we lost our spirit and our fight, the victory margin for Purdue would have been a lot wider than it is.”