WEST LAFAYETTE – The Michigan basketball team may not be going to the NCAA Tournament following its regular season. But last night, it played like a team that is definitely worthy of a tournament bid, knocking off No. 24 Purdue 78-67 at Mackey Arena.
The Boilermakers were previously undefeated this season at home, but the Wolverines (9-3 Big Ten, 16-9 overall) came ready to play from the tip, improving their Big Ten road record to 3-3.
“We aren’t eligible for the NCAAs, but we can always deserve it,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “Although we’re not eligible, we understand the reasons why, and we support the decisions made by our school.”
Coupled with Penn State’s victory over Wisconsin, Michigan is now in the conference driver’s seat, alone atop the Big Ten standings and making a statement to the rest of the league.
After cutting an 13-point halftime deficit to four with just over nine minutes to go, the Boilermakers struggled to get any closer. Following a missed runner in the lane from Michigan freshman Daniel Horton, Purdue guard Willie Deane – the second leading scorer in the Big Ten – missed on both attempts from the free throw line, which could have cut the deficit to two. Then on the other end, forward LaVell Blanchard drained a 3-pointer from the corner to extend the Michigan lead to 57-50.
Purdue (8-4, 16-7) later made another run to cut the Michigan lead to five following a 3-pointer from David Teague. But Blanchard refused to let his team go down. Hindered by a first-half ankle sprain, the Michigan senior canned an open three to put Michigan up 65-57.
Blanchard came up big for Michigan following poor outings in the team’s last two road games, when he posted nine and eight points in road losses to Minnesota and Indiana, respectively.
“He was hobbling a little bit, but he fought through that,” Amaker said. “He’s a senior, and he’s a tough player. He showed that determination and toughness here tonight.”
“He’s a big time player,” said Horton, who called Blanchard a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. “That’s the kind of stuff he does. If you give him the ball with his feet set, you can pretty much count it.”
Despite Blanchard’s late-game composure, Horton led Michigan all evening – especially in the first half, when he finished with 21 points, nine coming from the free throw line. At one point in the half, Horton had 13 of Michigan’s 23 points.
“He played a great game today,” said Purdue forward Kenneth Lowe, who was assigned to Horton. “It’s hard to stop a good player when he’s going, and he got going early in the game. He continued to play well for the 40 minutes.”
Horton dominated a first half that saw Purdue come out sluggish and unprepared. The Boilermakers connected on just 6-of-21 first-half attempts, only staying in the game because of their 16-of-17 clip from the free throw line.