Lincoln, Neb. — With the game on the line, freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. had the game in his hands.
Walton made the most of his opportunity.
He converted the go-ahead basket with 21.8 seconds left that helped Michigan take a 71-70 road victory at Nebraska on Thursday night.
The Wolverines (11-4, 3-0 Big Ten) trailed by one. Walton took a handoff from Glenn Robinson III, and when the defense stayed with Robinson, Walton went to the basket. With 6-foot-8 forward Leslee Smith standing under the rim and trying to draw an offensive foul, Walton went up and converted the basket, getting a foul on Smith instead.
“That was one of the options — go in and score,” coach John Beilein said. “If it blew up at all, we were going to call timeout.”
Walton finished with 10 points, his sixth game in double figures. But his key play with the game in the balance lifted the Wolverines, even if the fine line between a blocking call or an offensive foul is razor-thin.
“The block-charge is very confusing everywhere in the country,” Beilein said. “I’m sure the people that make these rules are going to find ways to make it better and clearer for understanding. I’m just glad we finished it.”
Walton also finished the first half with a flourish, hitting a 50-foot halfcourt heave to give Michigan a 33-30 advantage.
“It’s great for his confidence to have that halfcourt shot and make a huge play down the stretch and basically win us that game,” said sophomore Nik Stauskas, who had 12 points and four assists. “As a freshman, this is about as hostile an environment as you’ll see on the road. For him to do that here, that gives him confidence he can do it just about anywhere in the Big Ten.”
For Walton, who has had an up-and-down freshman season, it’s another high moment, building his confidence as U-M gets deeper into the conference season.
“It’s great for his confidence — not only the halfcourt shot, but he’s been progressing every day in practice and every day,” Robinson said.
With Stauskas and Robinson shining on offense, Nebraska coach Tim Miles wasn’t looking for a particular play, putting his team in a zone defense.
“When you are in zone, there’s a few guys out there that you know are going to hurt you,” Miles said. “I don’t really like anybody scoring on us.”
The Huskers, who have lost all three conference games, were looking for their first conference win in their new facility, the Pinnacle Bank Arena. They lost the first two Big Ten games on the road at No. 22 Iowa and at No. 3 Ohio State.
When rebuilding a program with several young players, every win is important. Nebraska played Michigan close down to the buzzer but didn’t make the plays when it mattered most.
“I thought the play that really hurt us was when we have an offensive rebound with a minute and a half or whatever it was, and you just don’t secure it, and Robinson III goes down and dunks it to go up two,” Miles said. “That just sticks out there. Our two plays where it seemed like we had everything under control, and then they make a play.”
Michigan also had a turnover with a little less than a minute left and fouled Terran Petteway, who made one of two free throws with 33.2 seconds left.
With only 13 players, Michigan’s roster has been depleted because of the injury to Mitch McGary (back surgery) and to walk-on Cole McConnell, who has a foot injury.
That means in practice, they’re down two bodies and can’t play at full strength or with many subs.
So assistant coach LaVall Jordan has jumped into the fray to show how things are done first-hand.
“Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Beilein joked last week.
But Jordan’s presence allows young guards like Walton and Spike Albrecht to see how passes should be made or how guards should be defended.
“Putting LaVall on that (scout) team helps us — he sees the game. I’ll put Spike or Derrick next to me and say watch him offensively and defensively and how engaged he is in the game,” Beilein said.
The team also has added another walk-on, Brad Anlauf, who was a walk-on with the football team. He has specific tasks in practice, mostly defensive, to help the starters prepare for game days.
“Brad Anlauf has done a great job — don’t let Nik Stauskas get the ball or body up Glenn all the time, the way people will play us,” Beilein said.
All four walk-ons — McConnell, Anlauf, Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan — have scored this season.