East Lansing — Because of flu-like symptoms, Michigan freshman Derrick Walton Jr. played just three minutes and was scoreless in the upset win over No. 10 Iowa on Wednesday.
So counting on Walton to be a key player in his first game against rival Michigan State might have been expecting a lot, especially being guarded by senior point guard Keith Appling.
But Walton answered the call, scoring 13 of his career-best 19 in the final six minutes and keying the No. 22 Wolverines’ 80-75 victory over the third-ranked Spartans at Breslin Center on Saturday night.
Walton hit 9 of 10 free throws, including eight in the final 150 seconds of the game.
“For Derrick, he’s growing up right before our eyes,” said Nik Stauskas, who also had 19 points. “Derrick did a great job — I don’t know how many he hit in a row there, but that was key for us.”
It was a breakout game for Walton, who opened the game with a 3-pointer and had eight points during a decisive 13-2 run in the last six minutes that gave Michigan (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) the lead for good.
Michigan trailed, 58-56, before Walton’s 3-pointer. After Stauskas later hit a 3-pointer, Walton followed with a three-point play to push the lead to 66-60.
“They began to shoot long-range shots and it was a long rebound and (Caris LeVert) grabbed the rebound and pushed it ahead to me,” Walton said. “I had one-on-one, so I made a move. The bucket went in, the momentum swung and the bench went crazy. After that, we just rode that.”
It was special for Walton in his first experience in the in-state rivalry, as he went 4-of-7 from the field and added five rebounds and four assists, with just one turnover in 30 minutes. His all-around game surprised the Spartans (18-2, 7-1), who shifted the defense off Walton to help on other offensive options.
“We were always cheating a little bit,” Michigan State coach Izzo said. “He made two 3’s, but it was the free throws. We fouled him on purpose because he was the least of the weapons. I thought he played really good.”
After Walton’s roommate, Zak Irvin, hit a 3-pointer in the final minutes of the first half, Walton followed with a three-point play to cut an eight-point lead to two with 2:37 left. But Walton elevated his game in the final six minutes, with the game in limbo and Michigan needing another big scorer besides Stauskas and LeVert.
“There were many memorable plays, but doing it here in front of this crowd with these guys makes it that much more special,” Walton said. “We bonded together as teammates and wouldn’t let each other down and played for each other. At the end of the day, we came out of the stretch successful, and it’s on to the next game.
“I know a lot of those guys on the Michigan State team, so coming in and getting this win with this team makes this a special moment.”
For Walton, who had only attempted 42 free throws before Saturday’s win, the environment and the badgering by the Izzone student section and Breslin crowd wasn’t easy to shake off. But playing in difficult road games such as at Iowa State and Duke, and at Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Big Ten, helped prepare him and the Wolverines for what they would face in the tough East Lansing arena.
“This environment is as hostile as any game we played all year. Playing in those games earlier in the year is kind of becoming a norm for us as a team,” Walton said. “When we first came out the locker room, they were extremely loud — I never heard a crowd that loud. That was the biggest difference.
“Iowa State and Duke really weren’t that loud. Coming out the locker room and hearing 18,000 kids jumping out and saying, ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaah!’ is a crazy feeling.”