Wojo: UM digs deep to produce character win

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, center,  celebrates with teammates on the bench in the second half Saturday.

Ann Arbor — This is what it’ll take, and how much it’ll take. Michigan players were grabbing loose balls, swatting at shots, sticking hands in faces, competing like they’ll have to compete the rest of the way.

The Wolverines missed shots Saturday, lots and lots of shots, and in a weird way, it was good for them. Because when the outcome was in doubt, they clawed on defense, snatched clutch rebounds and pulled out their gutsiest victory of the season.

John Beilein’s group needed this 61-56 victory over Purdue badly, and not just for a boost in the Big Ten standings and a major boost for its NCAA Tournament bid. The Wolverines needed to prove they had this type of spirited tenacity in them, and to show what they’re still capable of this season.

The last two times a Big Ten toughie came to town — Michigan State and Indiana — Michigan got crushed. Purdue seemed capable of the same as it built a 10-point lead, and the Crisler Center crowd probably wondered if it was watching a replay.

Michigan finally had Caris LeVert back after he missed 11 games with a left leg injury, but he eased in and was limited to 11 scoreless minutes.

Michigan rallies to take down No. 18 Purdue

If Michigan (19-7, 9-4 Big Ten) was going to alter its fortunes, it had to do it the tough way, not with a season-saving performance from its leader, not with scorching deep shooting. The Wolverines trailed 56-50 with 3:13 left, and at the rate they were clanking shots, it seemed insurmountable. They finished 5-for-20 on 3-pointers, and outside of Zak Irvin’s hot streak, they were 1-for-12.

No simmer

But they didn’t allow the Boilermakers (20-6, 8-5) to score again, and in crunch time, the guy who struggled the most shook it off. Derrick Walton Jr. was 0-for-9 before he scored on a drive and was fouled. He missed the free throw but hit four in a row in the final 15 seconds, and by the end, the crowd was cheering madly for the effort.

“We just looked like a whole different team,” Walton said. “Shooting numbers right now are just out the window. When guys look at the stat sheet, we don’t really care at this point. We just want to make sure we did exactly what we needed to do, and then a little more than needed.”

The theory was — and has been for a while — that Michigan would have to shoot its way to success. You know, thrive by the three, dive by the three. The Wolverines aren’t big enough or aggressive enough on defense to survive droughts, a theory hammered home by the Spartans and Hoosiers.

Give Beilein credit, because a week ago his team appeared on the verge of buckling, and instead rallied and showed key intangibles. Rather than wallow, Michigan won a tight game at Minnesota, then battled fiercely against a big Purdue team anchored by seven-footer A.J. Hammons. Here’s the staggering statistic: the Wolverines outrebounded the Boilermakers 39-35 and outscored them in the paint. Purdue was the only team in the country that hadn’t been outrebounded in a game all season.

“It was a gritty, not pretty performance, and it’s big for our program,” Beilein said. “I think we grew up a lot today as a team. Games are gonna be tough, you’re gonna have to be tougher.”

LeVert's return spells relief for UM

If the Wolverines needed inspiration, they had plenty of choices. Members of past Big Ten championship teams were in attendance, as were recent stars such as Mitch McGary. It also was a day to honor Chad Carr, the late grandson of Lloyd Carr, and raise awareness for the Chad Tough Foundation to fight pediatric brain tumors. LeVert’s return stoked the energy too, and although he didn’t score, he grabbed five rebounds and should gradually improve his stamina.

Oh, and there also was the inspiration drawn from being pounded by most power teams they’d faced. Now they have home victories over Purdue and Maryland, and despite their struggles, it’s noteworthy where they stand in the Big Ten. Michigan is in fourth place, and its 9-4 mark keeps it ahead of Purdue, Michigan State and others.

Stretcher drive

This type of effort was important to see because the closing five-game stretch is nasty. Michigan plays at Ohio State, at Maryland and at Wisconsin, and is home against Northwestern and then Iowa in the finale. It probably needs to win at least two of the five to feel comfortable about its NCAA chances before the Big Ten tournament.

“I was proud of how hard we fought,” said Irvin, who had 22 points. “I think everyone’s really counting us out with the injuries we’ve had to Caris and Spike (Albrecht). … We weren’t making shots and then we weren’t playing defense, and we got embarrassed at home the last two games. Today, we weren’t making shots, but our defense didn’t waver.”

It was a solid response from a team trying to put pieces together and find different ways to win. This was an unusual way, but a vitally important way.