Derrick Walton capped his Crisler career with a vintage performance. [Bryan Fuller]
"We're not done yet," said a triumphant Derrick Walton, addressing the Crisler Center crowd after a Senior Day victory over Purdue that all but locked in Michigan to a NCAA tournament bid.
The Wolverines looked the part of a team capable of making a run in March. They scored on their first possession against the current Big Ten leaders, getting a Moe Wagner layup off a Walton assist. Those two would lead the way in a game Michigan never trailed.
The matchup of Wagner and national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan took center stage in the first half. The German big man didn't just hold his own: he dominated. Forcing the burlier Swanigan to defend in space, Wagner poured in 22 first-half points, making five of six two-pointers and raining in four of his six three-point attempts. While Swanigan had an efficient nine points in the half, timely Michigan double-teams forced two turnovers, and he couldn't get the defense to collapse—the normally hot-shooting Boilermakers went only 5-for-16 on threes.
"That's just my guy, man," Walton said of Wagner. "I've got an absurd amount of respect for him. We go through [the pick-and-pop] so much in pregame, that's just our little thing. He knows where I'm at. I know where he's at. With a defense like that, I feel it was my priority to get him the ball in space."
Purdue adjusted in the second half, putting Vincent Edwards on Wagner and switching on every screen, but by then it was too late. Duncan Robinson's corner three-pointer sent Michigan into halftime with a 15-point lead, and the Wolverines would push the margin as high as 22 points before a last-gasp Boilermakers comeback made matters uncomfortable for a couple possessions.
Wagner scored 22 of his 24 points in the first half. [Fuller]
Fittingly, the seniors to play a huge role in fending off that comeback. Zak Irvin struggled to score again today, but he made his mark with a big defensive play, chasing down Carsen Edwards to force a fast break miss when Purdue had a chance to cut the lead to single digits. The Boilermakers subsequently got it to a six-point game with 2:14 to play. Walton ended the threat by ducking under Swanigan to hit leaning three-pointer that beat the shot clock and effectively ended the threat.
"I silently thanked God because there was no reason I should've made the shot," Walton said. "It was probably one of the worst possessions we had all game. You just kind of dribble the ball around for six seconds. It's just one of those times. We had a lot going against us this season. It was one of those moments where it was kind of 'okay then, we finally got a good bounce of the ball.'"
"I was actually about to chase it. It was not a good shot."
Walton finished with a very Walton stat line: 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting, 11 rebounds, five assists, no turnovers, and a steal. Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman both finished in double figures on combined 7-for-9 shooting. DJ Wilson added nine points and a critical stint at center in the second half when Mark Donnal proved ineffective. Xavier Simpson got into the act, hitting both his field goals—a transition corner three and an eye-opening layup after driving past Swanigan—and dishing out a pair of assists.
Xavier Simpson gave the fans a taste of what's to come after Walton. [Fuller]
The team was in high spirits in the aftermath. Asked if Irvin cried, Walton couldn't help but laugh, then said loud enough for his fellow senior to hear, "I think he choked up on the mic. He did. I looked at him."
"No I didn't!" Irvin yelled from across the room.
They know there's still more to accomplish, however.
"We already experienced something like this where we've had some success," Walton said, referring to the wins at Madison Square Garden. "We want to show who we really are by consistently bringing the same effort."
"You've just got to spend a film session with me to know that they know they haven't punched any ticket," said John Beilein. "There's a lot of work to do. You don't know what can happen down the stretch here with teams that are trying to get in there."
Northwestern fits that description. Michigan will head to Evanston on Wednesday in the midst of their best stretch of basketball all season. The team we've seen the last few weeks could make quite a bit of noise in March. Today's win made it much more likely they'll get the chance to do so.