Washington — Why not us?
It’s been Michigan’s rallying cry throughout the Big Ten tournament, one that got off to a horrific start after its charter flight skidded off the runway at Willow Run Airport but culminated in an unprecedented finish.
Behind the determination of seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr., No. 8 seed Michigan finished the job and capped off its unforgettable week with a 71-56 win over second-seeded Wisconsin in championship game Sunday at the Verizon Center.
The Wolverines (24-11) became the lowest seed to win the tournament, besting No. 6 Iowa, who won it in 2001. It was just Michigan’s third appearance in the championship game in tournament’s 20-year history.
Michigan won in 1998 but title was vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
Senior forward talks about Sunday's 71-56 win over Wisconsin in the championship game. James Hawkins
“Derrick and I have been talking about this for a while now,” said Irvin, who was named to the All-Big Ten tournament team along with Walton, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “Us being roommates, we always talk about let’s leave a legacy. Let's do something that's never been done and we were able to do that.
“We won a Big Ten championship our freshman year. We played a key role in that, but to really be able to do this with Derrick and I leading these guys is a great feeling for us."
After Wisconsin (25-8) rallied late to cut Michigan’s lead to one at halftime, the Wolverines regained the momentum early in the second half. Michigan scored the first six points on a D.J. Wilson jumper, Moritz Wagner layup and Walton jumper to extend its advantage to 39-32 with 16:33 remaining.
The Badgers opened 0-for-4 from the field and didn’t score their first points of the second half until Nigel Hayes (14 points) hit two free throws to make it 39-34 at the 14:41 mark.
Michigan kept pushing as Wilson (17 points) threw down a dunk and grabbed an offensive rebound that led to an Irvin three-point play, a 44-34 lead and a roaring cheer from the Wolverine faithful.
Wisconsin’s field goal drought raged on and reached eight straight missed shots until Ethan Happ got loose for a dunk for the Badgers’ first made basket at the 11:56 mark to make it 44-36.
Forward talks about beating Wisconsin, 71-56, in the championship game on Sunday. James Hawkins
Walton hit two free throws and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman got a lucky bounce on a 3-pointer to put Michigan back by double digits, 49-38, with 8:30 to go but it didn’t last long.
The Badgers clawed back with a 5-0 run on a Vitto Brown 3-pointer and Zak Showalter steal and fast-break layup to trim it to 51-45 two minutes later, forcing a Michigan timeout to calm things down.
Out of the timeout, Irvin (15 points) beat the shot clock with a momentum-shifting 3-pointer from the wing to extend the Wolverines’ lead to 54-45 with 5:46 to play.
Sophomore center talks about Sunday's 71-56 win over Wisconsin in the championship game. James Hawkins
"When we were six up with six minutes to go, I think we kind of smelled blood,” Wagner said. “I remembered the game at Wisconsin (on Jan. 17) it was the same situation. We were up six with six minutes to go.
“I think once Zak had a clutch three and we got a stop, I knew, 'OK, this can get very real.' One more stop then another stop, it's unbelievable."
With the Big Ten title nearly within its grasp, Wilson pulled off an acrobatic finish on a lob pass from Irvin and a mad scramble led to an Abdur-Rahkman fast-break dunk as Michigan began pulling away, 61-52, with 2:46 remaining.
The Wolverines finished their wild ride in style, with Wilson throwing down an emphatic two-handed dunk in transition and Walton scoring all alone on a fast-break layup to make it 65-52 and start the celebration. Walton (22 points) sealed with four free throws in the final 1:02 and assisted on a Wilson layup for the final margin.
“We felt blessed since everything that we've been through this past week, what happened on Wednesday to be in the position that we're in right now,” Wilson said. “I think we were just destined to win this.”
Running on the high of its wild ride, Michigan relied on an early 3-point barrage from Wagner, Wilson and Walton to take an 11-6 lead with 16:15 left in the first half.
After Hayes knocked down a mid-range jumper to tie it at 13 at the 12:35 mark, Michigan turned up the aggression in transition. The Wolverines rattled off six straight points with Wilson using an up-and-under move to a shake defender before knocking down a floater. Irvin followed with a driving layup in traffic and capped it with a reverse layup to push ahead, 19-13, at the 11:08 mark.
Walton then went on a 9-0 run of his own, draining three straight 3-pointers within the span of a minute to give Michigan a 30-20 cushion with 5:25 left in the half.
From there, Wisconsin closed out the half on a 12-3 run behind Happ (14 points) and Bronson Koenig (15 points) to trim Michigan’s lead to 33-32 at the break.
“Yesterday, we were talking about how we were 40 (minutes) away from being 40 away. We went into halftime talking about how we were 20 away,” Walton said. “They made a run, but I looked our guys and no one was even thinking about being tired. Being tired wasn't even an option.
“This feeling is surreal. The confetti. I dreamt it, I saw it. Now it feels great to have it in fruition.”