DAYTON, Ohio — Zak Irvin’s eyes told John Beilein everything he needed to know.
Early in the game, they told Michigan’s ninth-year coach that Irvin was having an off night.
“He was really having trouble with their quickness and their length when we put him in the ball screen in the middle part of the halves,” Beilein said. “So we gave him a little rest. I just looked at him. He looked beat and didn’t have that confidence.”
Late in the second half, with the Wolverines trailing Tulsa by a point in a win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament game, Beilein saw the opposite message.
“I look at his eyes,” Beilein said. “I can tell a lot from his eyes (about) where he is. He wanted the ball late, and we just went with him. It’s what he wants to do, and I wasn’t surprised at all when he pulled up.”
With 53 seconds left in the game, Beilein put Irvin in motion for a play that gave him the option to shoot a potential game-winner, should the opportunity present itself. Coming off a perimeter screen, Irvin pulled up and launched from deep, surprising precisely none of his coaches or teammates.
Irvin had struggled somewhat early in the game, missing multiple open first-half jumpers, displaying iffy shot selection and failing to lift the Wolverines out of their game-opening, 2-for-13 rut from beyond the 3-point arc.
In the final minute, none of that mattered to Irvin or to Beilein. The shot went in, giving Michigan a 62-60 lead that the Wolverines expanded in the final seconds.
“I just have the mentality that no matter how many shots I miss, I always feel like the next one’s gonna go in,” Irvin said. “The 3 I made tonight — right as it left my hands, it felt good.”
Irvin’s 16 points — 13 of which came in the second half — wound up tied for the team scoring high with redshirt sophomore forward Duncan Robinson. Walton, Robinson and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman shouldered Michigan’s scoring load for most of the game, but Beilein’s last-minute play call was almost expected despite Irvin’s early struggles.
“He’s a really confident dude,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “He doesn’t really waver. Sometimes he sulks because he’s so disappointed in the fact that he’s not making the plays that he’s normally used to making, but you know in the grand scheme of things he’s really confident, and he loves the moment.”
That’s why Irvin’s teammates call him “Big Shot” — he takes big shots, makes big shots and doesn’t let early slumps interfere with his mindset.
Less than a week removed from a last-second jumper to beat Northwestern in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament, Irvin did it again on Wednesday. With Michigan, a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, set to take on No. 6 seed Notre Dame on Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y., there might be more opportunities for Irvin to play the hero.
Walton says he can’t envision a scenario in which Beilein wouldn’t feel comfortable dialing up Irvin with the season on the line, and for good reason.
“He’s built that reputation,” Walton said. “Being a guy that really hunts, and in the huddle (he) screams to get the ball some. … That speaks volumes to the type of moment he likes to perform in.”