Wagner 'is the difference' as Michigan bashes Purdue
Ann Arbor — Heading into Saturday’s matchup against Purdue, the biggest question was how was Michigan going to slow down star Caleb Swanigan?
Turns out the real question was how was Purdue going to slow down Moritz Wagner?
The sophomore center stole the show on Senior Day, pouring in a career-high 24 points — 22 coming in the first half — on 10-for-15 shooting in an 82-70 win over No. 14 Purdue at a sold-out Crisler Center. Wagner’s previous high was 23 points against Nebraska on Jan. 14.
Derrick Walton Jr. had 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in his final home game for Michigan (19-10, 9-7 Big Ten), which has won five of six and took another huge step toward punching its ticket into the NCAA Tournament. Duncan Robinson scored 11 off the bench and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 10 points.
“Moe’s a problem. He's a gnat on defense and he's a problem on offense,” Walton said. “He gives people fits and I’m just happy he's on our side. He worked so hard this summer and last year when he was pretty much not playing, to see him have an output like this it's one of those things where I feel like I'm a part of it.
“He's got so many skills. I don't think you can put him in a box of what he can do.”
After Michigan roared to a 15-point halftime lead, Purdue opened the second half with the first four points on a hook from Swanigan (18 points, five rebounds, five turnovers) and two free throws from Carsen Edwards (18 points) to cut the deficit to 45-34 with 18:34 to go.
The Wolverines countered with six straight points on two Abdur-Rahkman free throws, a D.J. Wilson layup and a Zak Irvin jumper to push it to 51-34 at the 15:05 mark. Wagner helped stem the tide on the defensive end during the spurt, forcing a turnover and drawing a foul on Swanigan on back-to-back possessions before picking up his third foul in the post.
“I don't really care about the offense. That was what made me actually proud today was that regardless of whether we scored or not, we locked in defensively if it was individually or as a team,” Wagner said. “We just executed the game plan really well and that was my focus after every basket. I was running back and saying, 'I have to guard a national player of the year candidate right now.' That was fun.”
With Wagner on the bench, Purdue began chipping away and used an 8-2 run with four points from Isaac Haas and jumpers from Edwards and P.J. Thompson to cut it to 53-42 with 11:08 left.
But Abdur-Rahkman stepped up and led a 13-2 flurry to extend Michigan’s lead to 66-44 over the next two minutes. He found Wilson on the baseline for a dunk, knocked down a jumper and dished to an open Xavier Simpson in the corner for a wide-open 3-pointer before Wilson and Robinson capped the run with 3-pointers.
Purdue (23-6, 12-4) didn’t go away quietly, rattling off a 13-2 run of its own to tighten it at 68-57 at the 5:09 mark. Swanigan scored five points during the stretch with a layup and three-point play.
After sitting much of the second half, Wagner came back in and hit a layup and Walton had a three-point play to give Michigan some breathing room at 73-59 with 3:58 remaining.
But Purdue surged with another 8-0 run over the next minute, cutting it to 73-67 on back-to-back 3-pointers from Edwards and a layup by Vincent Edwards (13 points) off a backcourt turnover to put Michigan in danger.
Walton came to the rescue with a leaning 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and Wilson hit two free throws to reestablish a double-digit lead, 78-67, with 1:32 to play. Abdur-Rahkman and Walton each added two free throws in the final 1:14 to put it away.
“I'm really excited for our team, program to be able to beat a really good team like Purdue and the way we beat them,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I'm proud of our seniors … and I’m proud they can go in front of that crowd and get a big win like that.”
Wagner was locked in and aggressive from the tip on both ends of the floor. He made three layups and forced a turnover, foul and jump ball while guarding Swanigan as Michigan opened an 8-4 lead with 15:59 left in the first half.
After Edwards knocked down a jumper to cut Michigan’s lead to two, Wagner began heating up from long range as he and Walton combined to make seven consecutive field goals. Wagner hit two 3-pointers and Walton had four points on a steal and layup and a mid-range jumper as the two combined to score 10 points in a two-minute span to extend Michigan’s lead to 25-18 with 7:41 remaining.
“(Wagner) was the difference not just in the first half, but I thought in the whole game,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Just from setting the tone even though he didn't score very much in the second half. His ability to stretch the defense and their ability to find him in that matchup. Obviously he's a very skilled guy. He can drive the ball, shoot 3s and is very talented. He had a great game."
Wagner continued his offensive assault, backing Swanigan down, spinning and finishing with a reverse layup at the rim before he and Walton knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the lead to 33-20 with 5:38 left.
Wagner was far from done, though. He buried his fourth 3-pointer from the wing, converted a layup and forced a traveling call on Swanigan down the stretch before Robinson drained a corner 3-pointer with a second left to give Michigan a 45-30 advantage at the break and its five seniors one final, lasting memory.
“Moe Weezy's a pro. I said that since the first day he stepped foot on campus last year,” Purdue guard and former Wolverine Spike Albrecht said. “We knew he was going to create a matchup problem.
“Whatever he did tonight, that's him in a nutshell.”