WASHINGTON — “It’s not every day you get to wake up and play in a championship game.”
While warming up on the court before the Big Ten Tournament championship game between the No. 8 seed Michigan men’s basketball team and No. 2 seed Wisconsin, Zak Irvin kept repeating those words.
Determined to help his teammates recognize the opportunity that lay before them, the senior wing made his voice echo around the Verizon Center for all to hear. And the Michigan men’s basketball team heard him.
“This is a really special moment for us, just go out there and seize it,” redshirt junior forward Duncan Robinson recalled Irvin saying.
As much as the refrain was directed toward his fellow Wolverines, it was just as indicative of his own personal mantra. After playing a key role in leading Michigan past its first three tournament opponents, Irvin saved his best performance for last.
Turning in a championship caliber effort Sunday, Irvin tallied 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists in Michigan’s 71-56 victory. Time and time again, he gave the Wolverines the edge when they needed him most.
“He realized the moment,” Robinson said. “He took advantage of it, and that’s what we expect him to do. He’s been so great, so consistent all year long, and today was no different.”
After back-to-back 3-pointers gave Michigan an early 11-6 lead, the Verizon Center came alive in support of the Wolverines. A quick 5-0 Wisconsin run, though, tied the game and silenced the crowd. Before the Badgers could extend their swing, though, Irvin had something to say about it.
He responded by helping the Wolverines launch an 8-2 run, driving to the basket and laying it in to give Michigan a 19-13 lead. Wisconsin immediately called a timeout, and Irvin threw his arm in the air, urging the fans decked in maize and blue to get loud. They obliged, launching a “Let’s Go Blue” chant that reverberated around the arena.
“It was great to hear that encouragement,” Robinson said. “Maize and blue travels well.”
Late in the first half, Michigan opened up a double-digit lead and started to look like it was capable of pulling away, but Wisconsin fortified its defense — holding the Wolverines scoreless for almost four full minutes — and scored seven consecutive points to narrow the deficit to three.
With Michigan in danger of falling behind at the break, Irvin stepped up once again. Coming out of a timeout, he took control of the possession and made a move on his man to gain enough separation to nail a 3-pointer, putting the Wolverines back up by four.
At the start of the second half, Michigan maintained its momentum, holding the Badgers without a field goal for the first eight minutes. Irvin punctuated that stretch with a 3-point play to give the Wolverines a double-digit lead at 44-34, sending the crowd into a frenzy once again, as the Michigan faithful could sense a title in their grasp.
Wisconsin put up one last effort at wresting the crown away from the Wolverines, scoring five straight points in just 45 seconds to shrink its deficit to 51-45 with 6:19 left in the game. Coming out of a timeout, Michigan couldn’t find an opening in the Badgers’ defense as the shot clock wound down.
Pushing past his man and catching the ball in motion, Irvin elevated for an off-balance 3-pointer. He nailed it as the shot clock expired to put the Wolverines back up 54-45. With 5:46 left in the game, Wisconsin would never come closer than six.
“I think he’s really just relaxed and let the game come to him,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He was very disappointed with some games when we needed him to make big shots and he didn’t. I think he probably heard the people that doubted him.
“I knew at some point he would make some big plays.”
Throughout the tournament, Irvin has risen to the occasion to make those big plays when his number has been called. On Sunday, he put on his strongest showing of all.
Living out his pregame message, Irvin came away a champion.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Irvin said. “I just wanted us to make the most of it.”