March 10, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This was a classic game, and University of Michigan men's basketball center D.J. Wilson turns up in so many of the mental freeze frames that will be recalled from this 74-70 overtime win against Purdue.
Wilson scored a game-high 26 points and then sent the game into overtime by blocking a three-point shot attempt by Purdue guard Carsen Edwards with one second remaining.
He was an impact player up and down all 94 feet of hardwood at the Verizon Center. Wilson grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and led the way with three blocked shots. The junior from Sacramento, California, exceeded the point total from his last three games combined and put his stamp on this game in every way.
Michigan's win Friday afternoon (March 10) over the Big Ten's regular-season champions -- playing fully rested thanks to the two-game bye they earned while the Wolverines had to beat Illinois the day before -- advances the Wolverines to Saturday's conference tournament semifinal game with Minnesota.
Yet, for all the impressive shots and plays Wilson made against the Boilermakers, who had Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan on the block, it was a charge he took against Edwards that he chose as his top effort in the game.
"My favorite play without a doubt was the charge," Wilson said.
Michigan coach John Beilein, perusing the postgame statistics while sitting next to where Wilson was standing, raised the stats in the air and smiled upon hearing that.
"Coach has been stressing it to me all year to take the charge," said Wilson. "I tried to get one in the first half and they called it a block (foul), but I got a chance in the second half and it went my way."
Billy Donlon, the Wolverines' defensive coaching guru, later told me, "It was a huge, huge play."
Beilein, in his postgame address to his team, looked at Wilson in the front row and couldn't stop smiling while recalling the charge and reciting his statistics to his teammates. The coach finished by leaning in to look Wilson in the eyes and shout: "AND 26 POINTS!"
The Wolverines surrounding him roared: "YEAHHHHHH!"
Zak Irvin scored half of the eight points in overtime, was great defensively and played the entire 45 minutes. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored eight points in the second half and made pivotal defensive plays. Derrick Walton Jr. scored 10 points in the first half to supply great energy.
One of the senior co-captains had a pregame message for Wilson that came true.
Walton said: "I told him before the game: 'This is going to be a big game for you, I know how they play.' And when we moved him to that five (center) position, I knew he was going to get open shots all day. I told him, 'You've got to shoot that shot whenever you're open.'"
The other senior co-captain followed up on that by getting Wilson the ball when defenses looked to take away Irvin's drives.
"I was confident going into the game," Wilson said. "But early I got a lot of easy points around the basket thanks to Zak. I think that's what got me going."
With Purdue building its lead to nine points with 4:44 left in the first half and threatening to pull away, Wilson put on a dazzling display. He scored 10 points in a span of 2:03, and Michigan took a one-point lead at the half.
That flurry ended with two treys from out top.
"I was just wide open," said Wilson. "And Coach (Beilein) told me that if I'm open to let it fly, and that's what I did. I felt confident."
Beilein added: "If you had a three-point shooting contest between D.J. and Moe (Wagner), I don't know who would win."
In games, Moritz Wagner (41-of-100, .410) has the trey edge on Wilson (34-of-91, .369).
The coach added that Wilson, 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, knows both the power forward and center positions.
"We felt the best way for [Wilson] to get on the court was to play him at center," said Beilein, noting that Wagner had a "minor" back injury and got into foul trouble that limited him to 17 minutes.
Wilson did in this game what Wagner did in the regular-season meeting between these two teams, when he scored 24 points. Wilson became the dominant force and had an absolute monster first half.
Purdue plays both 7-foot-2, 290-pound Isaac Haas and Swanigan (6-9, 250 pounds), and that supplied a special challenge to Wilson and Wagner (6-11, 240 pounds).
"We talked about that a lot coming into the game -- how they play two bigs," said Wilson. "So, we're mobile. We're agile. Taking them off the dribble is a real good option for us. We did so today. It resulted in a win."
Still, the methods Wilson used to battle Purdue weren't something Beilein anticipated:
"I was actually surprised that D.J. just moved his feet and used his length, not his strength, (but) used his length and his quickness to guard defensively."
Wilson has gained 20 pounds working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, and he puts his 7-foot-1 wingspan to full use.
Beilein challenged Wilson to become something special this season. He played only five games as a freshman, averaged 2.7 points and less than one rebound per game as a sophomore, and hadn't started until this season.
"D.J. was a bit of an X-factor and an outlier going into this year," Beilein told me. "We knew we were down in numbers (after several transfers), and we wanted to make sure D.J. was very comfortable with staying.
"He had a first two years that, to many, would be a disappointment, but to us it was a matter of growth. We said, 'D.J., you're going to get the opportunity, but you've got to earn it.' And he embraced that opportunity."
Wilson, who had a career-high 28 points in the conference opener at Iowa, is averaging 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
"I've always been confident in my abilities," said Wilson, "but it was just a matter of opportunity, and me just working on what Coach wanted me to do, and knew it was going to work. And it's resulted in a lot of wins. It's resulted in a lot of success."
It was defense that brought this victory. Wilson was a big part of that, swatting away three shots and getting everyone from former teammate Spike Albrecht to Swanigan, who was limited to 13 points before fouling out with 20.1 seconds remaining.
Beilein tapes a photo of a toothy, growling pit bull that the players have nicknamed "Toother" next to the white board where plays and defenses are designed. Donlon earlier this season wrote "STREET FIGHT" above that board in the Crisler Center locker room, and he used magic marker again before facing Purdue, writing in all capital letters: "NOT TODAY."
"This win means a lot," said Wilson. "We came into this game and Coach Donlon made us realize that they were the ones that knocked us out of the Big Ten Tournament last year.
"So, we wanted to get them back, and it was sweet revenge."