No. 2 Michigan comes out 'soft' against Purdue, but finishes strong to hit 18-1 on the season
Through their first 11 home games, the Wolverines had outscored opponents 442-286 before halftime -- giving Michigan an average intermission lead of 13 points.
But not Thursday.
No. 2 Michigan entered halftime against Purdue with its first first-half home deficit of the season, prompting Wolverines coach John Beilein to get real honest with his roster in the locker room.
They'd been playing soft.
"That's what he told us at halftime," Michigan freshman Glenn Robinson said after the Wolverines' 68-53 win over the Boilermakers. "We needed to step it up."
Michigan did, eventually, step it up against Purdue, using second-half runs of 10-0 and 7-0 to distance itself midway through the second half -- moving to 18-1 for the first time in school history.
But the first 20 minutes of Thursday's win wasn't pretty -- not even close.
The Wolverines coughed the ball up six times in the opening 20 minutes, more than half their season average to date. And though the Wolverines had a slight edge on the glass early, almost every 50-50 ball seemed to fall into Purdue's hands early.
The Boilermakers had a combined 15 points in second-chance and turnover conversion categories, and seemed to have more fight in them than Michigan -- a team that could very well be the No. 1 team in America come Monday, if it can get by Illinois on Sunday.
"It was mental toughness," Beilein said. "As we play better and better teams, which you'll see every day in the Big Ten, you have to be poised with your decisions. You have to hit singles, and then you have to hit (more) singles. That's how we score points.
"The days of playing a team that maybe we could go for some home runs and still win, that doesn't work, we learned that (when we lost to Ohio State) in Columbus."
Michigan eventually heeded Beilein's advice, shooting an efficient 14 of 26 from the floor after halftime, and flipping the script on Purdue with its defense.
The Boilermakers shot 7 of 13 from downtown in the first half, led by known sharpshooter D.J. Byrd's eight early points. But in the second half, Michigan locked in by taking Nik Stauskas off Byrd and moving Tim Hardaway Jr. onto him -- which forced Purdue into an 0 of 9 long-range performance after the break.
Michigan's late-game intensity was enough Thursday, but players say this can't become a habit.
"The defense has to turn on from the jump of the ball, the first minute of the game," Hardaway said. "Everybody's going to catch onto this, everybody gets film throughout the league, so we just have to do a better job of going out there and play defense the whole 40 minutes of the game."
Perhaps it should be considered a testament to how talented Michigan is that it considered half of a 15-point Big Ten win a "soft" performance. Perhaps not.
One thing is for certain, though. It can't play soft and live to tell about it in this league, not soft mentally, not soft physically.
Michigan certainly has enough talent to win the Big Ten this season, it might even have enough firepower to become the country's top-ranked team within a matter of days.
But no one enters this conference with a "soft" bone in its body and lives to discuss it.
"We don't want to be called soft at all," Stauskas said. "We definitely made an effort to change that."
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