March 4, 2018 at 8:40 PM
NEW YORK — A few flakes of confetti fell from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden with a little more than seven minutes remaining in Sunday’s Big Ten championship game, briefly landing at the feet of Michigan’s players as they lined up for a pair of free throws and prepared to take a commanding 17-point lead over No. 8 Purdue. The interruption didn’t feel inadvertent or premature.
There was little doubt by that point that No. 15 Michigan was well on its way to a second consecutive conference tournament championship, and after a convincing 75-66 victory was finally sealed and the rest of the confetti finally spilled onto the court, the Wolverines could finally rest after winning four games in four days. Michigan would have to wait at least 11 days before it plays again as the Big Ten’s automatic qualifier in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but this much was clear Sunday: The Wolverines are peaking at the right time, and they are doing it with a tenacious defensive identity that stifled one of the country’s best offensive teams.
“We’re going to enjoy this for a couple days and get some rest, and then we’re going to focus on whatever is next. But whether [the layoff] is an advantage or a disadvantage, it doesn’t really matter,” said Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, who finished with 17 points and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Wagner gave Purdue problems in pick and rolls from the onset and helped ensure that Michigan (28-7) had another efficient offensive performance — the Wolverines shot just 8 for 23 from three-point range but hit half their 52 shots from the field. Michigan also received a surprising performance from 7-foot-1 sophomore Jon Teske. After spelling Wagner, Teske scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half — he had only scored in double figures twice this season — and by the time he threw a two-handed dunk over Purdue’s 7-2 center Isaac Haas with 6:05 left to push Michigan’s lead to 18, the pro-Michigan crowd at the Garden chanted the quiet reserve’s name.
“I really have no words to explain,” Teske said.
Wagner also had difficulty comparing this tournament run with last year’s, when Michigan was involved in a plane crash as it took off for the Big Ten tournament in Washington.
The Wolverines rode the emotion of that scare and won four straight games to claim the tournament title before making a run to the Sweet 16. They arrived in New York last week with no drama, but they had to beat Iowa in overtime in the second round Thursday to keep their hopes of repeating alive.
“It takes a long time to sort of build up the substance to your team that can preserve and just won’t give in,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “They won’t give in to fatigue. They won’t give in to momentum changes. They just stick in there.”
What does feel different about this team is its heightened defensive intensity, which again began with Michigan guard Zavier Simpson on Sunday. Michigan has a photo of a pit bull that is hung in the locker room before each game, and that’s what Simpson has symbolized in each outing. On Sunday, he hounded Purdue’s guards and helped hold the Boilermakers’ starting backcourt of Carsen Edwards (12 points on 16 shots) and P.J. Thompson (three points on four shots) to a relatively quiet performance. Purdue (28-6) shot just 4 for 17 from deep and committed 11 turnovers; while Haas finished with 23 points, he was largely contained in the second half by Wagner and Teske.
“They’re a unique team,” said Purdue Coach Matt Painter, whose team swept the Wolverines by a combined five points in two games during the regular season. “Playing Michigan, John [Beilein] has a great system.”
Michigan did not commit its first turnover until there was 15:06 left. By that point, the Wolverines had scored 11 points off seven Boilermakers turnovers — and led by 11.
Wagner scored eight points in just over two minutes midway through the second half to give Michigan a comfortable cushion, including a turnaround baseline three-pointer that pushed the lead to 14. He fell into the scorer’s table for good measure, sticking his tongue out as the crowd at Madison Square Garden roared. There were questions about how staging this tournament in New York City for the first time would be received, especially because holding it here pushed it up a week, but the Wolverines played in front of a sold-out crowd in a semifinal win over Michigan State on Saturday. The arena wasn’t quite that full Sunday, but it was plenty loud for the Wolverines, who believe that the long layoff between now and the NCAA tournament won’t keep them from playing their best basketball of the year.
“To play in this arena, in front of that crowd, which was, I feel, very pro-Michigan, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us,” Beilein said. “So it will be worth the wait.”