Bob Wojnowski and James Hawkins on Michigan win and upcoming game with Louisville.
Indianapolis — The higher the pressure, the higher the score, the more comfortable the Wolverines are getting. And there’s really no secret how they’re doing it.
Need a basket, a pass, a rebound, a fiery boost, a calming hand? Derrick Walton Jr. is in every key moment now, on one of those scintillating runs you only see at tournament time. He’s not doing it alone, no matter how it looks, but he is doing it all.
In an NCAA-opening shootout, Michigan kept firing at a record pace and outdueled Oklahoma State 92-91 Friday. It wasn’t a miraculous finish — Cowboys star Jawun Evans hit a 3-pointer as time expired for the final margin — but it was rich with tension. And every time you wonder if the Wolverines can handle more heat, you remember where this postseason began.
If it’s possible, Walton and his teammates are starting to look accustomed to the stress, which is good, because there will be a bunch more Sunday when they face second-seeded Louisville. John Beilein trusts Walton in all ways, and after a slow start against the Cowboys, he gently prodded him to do what he does.
“With the defense he was seeing, he was deferring again,” Beilein said. “I had to coach him really hard, convince him — you take control of this team, you run this team.”
Walton’s default mode is to be unselfish, and that’s admirable. But sometimes, you just have to be the best player on the floor, like when you lead by five with less than a minute left and have the ball. Walton backed into Evans — dribbling dribbling dribbling — as the shot clock ticked down, then bulled his way and flipped a shot that dropped. It was the ultimate stagger, although the outcome wasn’t sealed until Walton and D.J. Wilson nailed a pair of free throws in the final 10 seconds.
The Wolverines hit an astonishing 16 of 29 3-pointers, a school record for a Tournament game. Walton hit six of nine and finished with 26 points, 11 assists and a team-high five rebounds. He was the first player to reach those thresholds in a tournament game since Marquette’s Dwyane Wade in 2003.
The Cowboys countered with the mercurial Evans, who nearly matched Walton. When a player does what Evans did (23 points, 12 assists) and a team does what Oklahoma State did (shot 54.7 percent, controlled the boards, 40-21), it almost always wins.
But the Cowboys ran smack into the Wolverines’ whirring blur of sweat, spirit and shooting. The reminders of the mission are still there, in subtle ways, such as when Walton left the game briefly in the second half with what he called a “little knee burn.” It actually was his stiches stretching, the five he received when he banged his knee leaping out of the grounded team plane last week.
“I feel like I’ve been in a full (mixed martial arts) fight right now,” Walton said after besting the Cowboys. “My body’s really sore. I feel like I flourish in those (pressure) situations because I look forward to them so much. And it makes it that much better knowing the guys behind me believe in me. It may sound cliche, but those guys give me as much strength as anybody can possibly give.”
Walton wanted to emphasize that point, and he’s not wrong. In its six straight victories, Michigan has gotten key contributions from plenty. When the Wolverines started tentatively Friday, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit big shots. D.J. Wilson added 19 points and Zak Irvin hit four of six 3-pointers and scored 16.
Emulating his hero
So it’s with some reluctance Walton describes the screensaver on his iPhone — a picture of Connecticut guard Kemba Walker. In 2011, Walker was an undersized point guard, like Walton, who went on an historic run. He led the Huskies to five straight victories in the Big East tournament and rolled all the way to the national championship.
Walker was a 6-foot-1 bulldog on a mid-seeded team, and he controlled all aspects of the game. Walton is a 6-1 bulldog on a mid-seeded team whose confidence is ratcheting. The night before facing Oklahoma State, Walton rewatched Walker’s tournament highlights, just to remind him what’s possible.
“Growing up, he was one of my favorite college players, and he still is one of my favorite point guards (playing with Charlotte in the NBA),” Walton said. “I steal a lot from his game, and I love how he competes.”
The competitive fervor has spread through the Wolverines, even as they struggled to defend Oklahoma State, one of the top offensive teams in the country. With Michigan’s offense, opponents have to know what’s coming, although the Cowboys didn’t seem to realize it. Coach Brad Underwood’s defense switched all screens to prevent Michigan from driving, and the curious strategy left the Wolverines no choice but to step back and fire 3s.
They hit 11 of 15 in the second half, including 5-of-6 by Walton. The roof-rattler came when he rose up about 30 feet from the basket, both shoes touching the edge of the March Madness midcourt logo, and swished it cleanly for a 70-64 lead. He punctuated the basket by flashing a broad grin to his bench and pounding his chest.
“That’s the old thing, win by the three, die by the three, right?” Beilein said. “If you don’t make ‘em, oh they lost by the three. Nobody mentions the times you win by it. But we’re gonna take what people give us. If they’re gonna switch screens, we’re gonna take them. You know why? Because we can make them. If that’s what they’re gonna do, that’s what we’re gonna do.”
That’s what Walton is going to do, or find teammates that will do it, depending on the obstacles. Moe Wagner picked up two quick fouls against the Cowboys and didn’t play much.
Walton would’ve logged the full 40 minutes if not for the knee issue that had him limping briefly. When it was over, teammates practically gave up trying to describe their senior leader.
“To use the word ‘unbelievable’ is wrong to me,” Wagner said. “Because what he did is normal for us. He started being vocal halfway through the season, and I’m proud of him. Because that defines a real leader to me, stepping out of his comfort zone, and now he’s leading like I’ve never seen before.”
He’s doing it with words and actions and cell-phone screen-savers. More tense times await, but whatever happens next, Walton and the Wolverines won’t be intimidated by the moment.
7 Michigan vs. 2 Louisville
When: Sunday, 12:10 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV / radio: CBS / WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 25-11, Louisville 25-8
At stake: Spot in Midwest Regional semifinals against Oregon-Rhode Island winner.