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Walton’s aggressiveness creates another late-game option

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 12, 2014

Throughout the past two seasons, and especially last year, former point guard Trey Burke dominated play late in games. When the game was on the line, the ball ran through Burke.

In the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 71-70 victory over Nebraska on Thursday, the ball ran through Burke’s replacement, Derrick Walton Jr.

As the main ballhandler for the team, it’s typically his responsibility to facilitate plays throughout the game, while picking his spots here and there to score himself. On Thursday, two of those moments helped lead Michigan to its victory.

The freshman first asserted his presence as he sunk a basket from beyond halfcourt to break a 30-30 tie before halftime. Then on the Wolverines’ last offensive possession, Walton drove on the side of the basket and drew a foul in the process as his shot attempt splashed through the net.

While the basket gave Michigan the lead and ultimately the victory, the possession once again backed up Michigan coach John Beilein’s assertion about his young team: There is no automatic choice to go to in high-pressure, big-time moments.

Michigan has been cast in this situation earlier in the season and in those moments, the option of who could play hero has varied.

In the Wolverines’ games in Puerto Rico, specifically against Florida State, they rode the back of sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, who finished with a career-high 26 points. Versus No. 1 Arizona, Stauskas once again was called upon to take the last-second shots. In Brooklyn, N.Y. against Stanford, the final minutes of the win relied on the play of Stauskas and sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.

And in Michigan’s 63-60 win over Minnesota to begin conference play, it was the combined play of Walton and redshirt junior forward Jon Horford that helped seal the win.

Without Burke and his superhero-like performances, Thursday’s game represented what the Wolverines will have to deal with, especially with the ruggedness of Big Ten play now underway.

Though all five Michigan starters scored in double-figures against Nebraska, including 19 by Robinson and 15 by fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan, there were multiple options of who would take the pivotal shot.

So when the Wolverines were down by one with 30 seconds remaining, the designed play wasn’t just an isolation play that Michigan had grown so accustomed to last year with Burke at the helm.

“It was actually something (Walton’s) been working on, we’ve been working on, that particular play,” Beilein told reporters after Thursday’s game. “He just took it right at him and scored. He had some other options; he didn’t look at those other options. He looked to score. That was one of the options: go in and score.

“If it blew up at all, we were going to call timeout. With that amount of time on the clock, we wanted to see if we could get them quick before they could set.”

While the play called for multiple possibilities, the one that unfolded showed the aggressiveness of Walton — something the guard hadn’t been called upon to display in the final stretches of play.

“I think it’s great for him,” Morgan said Thursday. “I think it’s been a little bit difficult for him to find out where he can get his looks and where he kind of has to pull back. We want him to be aggressive and keep putting pressure on the rim because it makes the (opposition) honor that and gets everyone else open.”

Added Stauskas: “For him to do that here that just gives him confidence that he can do it about anywhere in the Big Ten.”

With that newly found confidence, the decision for Beilein of who will take the shot with the game on the line just got tougher. Another option has emerged.