With the weight of the game falling on forward D.J. Wilson’s shoulders, he didn’t buckle.
In Michigan’s wins over No. 10 seed Oklahoma State and No. 2 seed Louisville in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, respectively, Wilson stepped up to the free-throw line and delivered in the pressure-packed moments.
He hit two free throws with three seconds left against Oklahoma State to turn a two-point edge into a four-point lead, putting the game just out of reach in the 92-91 shootout victory.
Then against Louisville, Wilson made four consecutive free throws in the final 17 seconds to counter Donovan Mitchell’s two driving layups and help Michigan hold on for a 73-69 win.
“I’m starting to feel (the confidence). He’s never been in that situation,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Wilson on Monday during his weekly radio show. “It’s been Zak (Irvin), it’s been Derrick (Walton Jr.), a little Muhammad (-Ali Abdur-Rahkman). This year we either won by so much or we lost by a few that we did not have a lot of you got to make this one-and-one to make this a four-point game. Derrick certainly has done it several times, but we haven’t done it.”
After 31 regular-season games, Wilson entered postseason play as an 81.4 percent (35-for-43) free-throw shooter. But in the Big Ten tournament and NCAA Tournament, Wilson’s numbers have improved to 88.2 percent (15-for-17), including a perfect 10-for-10 in the two NCAA Tournament wins. His two misses came in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals against Purdue.
“The basket gets small at times, but it didn’t get small for D.J. It did not get small,” Beilein said. “I’m looking at one that slightly hit the rim. The others ones were right down through the middle, and you know when he shoots he’s about 3 inches behind the line.
“I know I’m not changing it, that’s for dang sure. Just let him go but he had it all the way. That’s another growth for him as we watch him evolve as a player.”
Beilein also couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Wilson had missed one or both of his last-second free throws against Oklahoma State, considering Cowboys guard Jawun Evans raced down the court and hit a 3-pointer as time expired for the final margin.
“If D.J doesn’t make those foul shots, that’s a whole different thing at the end. We’re not even sitting here,” Beilein said. “All these people that are all happy they probably got a ‘For Sale’ sign on my house. D.J. makes a couple of those and all of a sudden we’re good coaches.”
Throughout Michigan’s Big Ten tournament title run, the Wolverines celebrated each win by dousing Beilein with water when he entered the locker room.
“The first time I got crushed with the water bottles,” Beilein said. “Then I came in double barrel the next time. I got crushed again.”
As Michigan advanced to the NCAA Tournament, Beilein began thinking of better options to combat his players. He thought about a pail of water until his wife, Kathleen, came up with the idea of getting a Super Soaker.
After getting it through Bankers Life Fieldhouse security in equipment manager Bob Bland’s bag, it was loaded and ready for Beilein after Michigan beat Louisville. But there was just one small hitch.
“I’ve never used a Super Soaker before. It was obvious because I hit (strength and conditioning coach) Jon Sanderson with the first shot,” Beilein said. “It’s the guys that don’t play that really love soaking me. Ibi Watson is killing me every time. I was looking for those guys and I couldn’t find anybody.
“I won the initial battle. I hit two or three guys, got them good then it was over. Then I lost the war. I was drenched by the end.”