It was as plain in their body language as it was on their locker room wall.
The Michigan men’s basketball team had a mantra Thursday afternoon, a little reminder to carry with them throughout their noon game against Purdue. It was so important, apparently, that assistant coach Billy Donlon felt the need to plaster it next to the clock in their locker room: “Not Today.”
A year ago, the Boilermakers ended Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament run with a 76-59 drubbing. This year, Donlon decided to make an emphatic point — getting bumped by the Boilermakers wasn’t about to become an annual tradition.
Based on the fight the Wolverines showed in their 74-70 upset win over Purdue, he got his message across.
“He got up and the chair and wrote the ‘Not Today’ on the wall and amped everybody up,” said senior forward Zak Irvin. “That was our mentality throughout the whole game. We talked about it, going into overtime and those last five minutes. We didn’t want to go home. We wanted to stay another night.”
Twice, Thursday, Michigan looked like it was about to lose its chance to do that. Late in the first half, the Wolverines were down by nine and showing signs that there might be a let down from the previous day’s win. But rather than fold, they responded.
D.J. Wilson used a pair of 3-pointers to spur an offensive outburst late in the first half, a resurgence that eventually gave Michigan a lead at halftime.
At the time, it would have been easy to wonder whether the Wolverines had grown tired after the hectic events surviving their plane accident Tuesday and their emotional win over Illinois on Wednesday. Many of the players didn’t seem to get out to the starts they wanted, with Purdue wearing down the Wolverines on the inside early.
But in the second half, the game’s character changed. After Wilson refused to let the game slip out of hand early, more of the Wolverines seemed to be following Donlon’s mantra.
Wilson’s post defense improved. Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman took on more active roles and started driving to the hole. Wagner snagged a pair of offensive rebounds and worked his way to the line. Even when shots weren’t falling, Michigan fought through it.
However, it could have easily slipped away late. Trailing by two in the final seconds of the game, Michigan was the beneficiary of a crucial missed free three throw. Gifted a second chance, Irvin attacked the rim and scored a lay-up to tie the game and eventually send it into overtime. Then, after the extra period started out ugly, he scored two more crucial lay-ups to give Michigan the edge.
It was the embodiment of a take-charge, “not today” performance.
Asked after the game how he felt about Irvin taking control late, Beilein gave a resounding endorsement.
“I loved it,” Beilein said. “I know that everybody may not agree with that, (but) I know who I’m coaching there, and that young man has done everything that he could possibly do. And if you saw his practice habits, and his attitude, and his ‘yes’ face when he was not shooting the ball well, you’d say, ‘Go to him.’ Because that kid believes in himself.”
It is certainly encouraging for Michigan that Irvin found success late in the game. He will be a crucial piece for Michigan as the postseason continues, and his embodiment of Donlon’s message could be key in that stretch.
Donlon, of course, also famously wrote ‘Street Fight’ on the Wolverines’ home locker room wall earlier this season against Illinois. Just like Thursday’s graffiti, that message was meant to inspire a rebound effort against a team that had previously beaten the Wolverines.
“He’s a big fan of his writing on walls and knowing that it can’t come off,” Wilson said.
And based on the results, maybe there’s something too it.