BUFFALO, N.Y.– It’s early, but Michigan may be the team of destiny in this year’s NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines advanced to a second round match up against Louisville Sunday in the Mid-west sub regional at Indianapolis following a thrilling 92-91 victory over Oklahoma State Friday at Bankers’ Life Arena.
The seventh seeded Big Ten tournament champion Wolverines (25-11) made 16 threes and shot 11 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half to finally take control of this wide open game against the Big 12 Cowboys. “I feel like we’re playing against the Golden State Warriors,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino claimed. “I’ve never seen shooting like that since I’ve been a coach.
”It looks like it’s going in from the moment it leaves their hands.”
Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. was the catalyst for Wolverines’ success, dong his best Kemba Walker imitation while scoring 19 of his 26 points in the second half of this wide open game where there was 16 lead changes. Walton got off to slow start, making just one of six shots in the first half. But after a long conversation with coach John Beilein, Walton turned back into the Big Ten tournament MVP from last week, dominating play with six threes and carrying his team offensively. “Just my mindset,” he said. “I just tap into the fact that I know I’ve worked really hard and trust my mechanics for the most part,” Halftime, I talked to one of my good friends on Team Doc, and I changed my shot a couple times. It’s just the mindset and the trust these guys have in me. It makes me go out and just play much more free just knowing they have a lot of confidence in me.”
Walton’s line– 26 points, 11 assists and 5 rebounds– put him in rare air and made him the first player in the tournament since Dwyane Wade of Marquette in 2003 to score at least 25 points, contribute 11 assists and grab 5 rebounds.
“During one time-out, I coached him pretty hard,” Beilein said. “I did not like what I was seeing in the first half, because the pressure that he was seeing, he was deferring again and started giving it to Muhammad (Ali Abdur-Rahkman) or I’m going to run this play, where we’re running it isn’t that important. (No,) we have to get to spots on the floor and you have to have a counter plan. He wasn’t countering at all he was deferring, that’s when we have to coach him really hard and tell him you have to take over control of this team and run this team.”
Guard Zak Irvin, playing in front of a hometown crowd, added four threes and finished with 16 points”
Michigan has won 11 of its last 13 games, including four straight in the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. playing inspired basketball after the private airplane that was carrying them to the East Coast was involved in a crash caused by high winds and skidded off the runway at Willow Run Airport near its Ann Arbor campus.
Fortunately, no one was hurt although Walton did require stitches on his leg.
“It wasn’t just skidding off the runway,” Beilein said. “It was full going, 150 miles an hour, we can’t stop. And our kids got– thank goodness the plane didn’t flip. All kinds of things could have happened once we got off the plane and looked.”
The team stayed in Ann Arbor that night. But there was never any thought of forfeiting the tournament. They boarded another plane the next day and flew to D.C.
“Definitely was tough for all of us,” Irvin said. “But I just think the hardest part for our team was just getting back on that plane. Once we landed back in D.C., we felt like why can’t we just go out and win this all. Why can’t this be one of the greatest stories ever told. That was just our mindset throughout the whole tournament. We just want to win and play well for our bothers. It was a brotherhood for us.”
That was evident against high scoring Oklahoma State and its great guard Jawan Evans, who challenged the Wolverines the entire game with 23 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists.
The Cowboys limited the Wolverines offensively in the first half, but Michigan erased a six point second half deficit with a run of four threes, the last from Walton with 12:28 to [play to take a 62-61 lead. They made three more in another flurry to take a 79-68 lead with 6:47 to go. But the Cowboys rallied, cutting the lead to two twice in the final eight seconds– only to watch the Wolverines, who shoot 80 percent from the line, close the game out.
“You go 11 for 15, that’s hard enough to do in the gym by yourself,” Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood said. “We shot 55 percent in the NCAA tournament and just lost in the first round, out rebounded an opponent 40-21 and you lose. It’s one I’ve got to grasp, outrebound an opponent 40-21 and lose. The game is changing. The 3 point line changing the way teams play.”
All he could do was shake his head.