KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “Money.”
Plain and simple. When Derrick Walton Jr. pulled up from beyond the arc with a chance to send Michigan to the Elite Eight, that’s what Andrew Dakich thought.
That’s what Walton thought himself. That’s what everyone thought.
“You felt like it’s meant to fall,” said senior forward Mark Donnal.
But it didn’t matter that everyone thought it was going in. It mattered that everyone cared who took it.
With the game on the line, the answer was unanimous. The Michigan men’s basketball team wanted the ball in Walton’s hands.
That wasn’t always the case. For the majority of the season, if you were trying to guess who would have the ball in their hands for the shot, you were better off picking a name out of a hat.
First came the game against Virginia Tech at Crisler Center. The Wolverines surrendered a 15-point lead to fall, 73-70, to the Hokies.
Justin Bibbs converted twice from the line with three seconds left to give Virginia Tech the three-point advantage, but Michigan still had a chance.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sent the ball soaring toward the baseline. Moritz Wagner needed to use every inch of his 6-foot-11 frame to keep the ball inbounds, corralling it toward Duncan Robinson.
Robinson had no choice but to let it fly from deep. Walton watched from the opposite wing as it rimmed out.
In the final five minutes of the game, Michigan was 2-for-9 from the field. That night, the Wolverines needed an answer down the stretch. It was nowhere to be found.
Against Texas the following week, things fell in Michigan’s favor. The Wolverines won, 53-50, but things could have just as easily gone the other way.
With 19 seconds left against the Longhorns, Michigan trailed by one. This time, Zak Irvin took the final shot — driving to the basket only to watch the ball clank off the backboard.
Fortunately for him, Wagner was there to clean up the garbage. The sophomore big man corralled a rebound, and kissed the ball off the glass to give the Wolverines a one-point lead with 16 seconds left. Walton was standing at the 3-point line watching it happen.
Michigan had a man hit the final shot. It didn’t have the man hit the final shot.
Then came the trip to Iowa City in January. Michigan went back and forth with the Hawkeyes all game — it was only fitting that the matchup went to overtime.
Once again, the Wolverines dropped one — 86-83 — in crunch time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
With 19 seconds left, Iowa’s Peter Jok knocked down two from the charity stripe to put the Hawkeyes up three. But Michigan had the final shot. With seven seconds left and a chance to tie, DJ Wilson pulled up from three. It didn’t even come close, and Zak Irvin’s offensive rebound was for naught.
Walton was the one who passed it to Wilson in the first place. John Beilein needed someone who could take the ball and go get a bucket. He had one of his most inexperienced starters shooting a deep 3 to tie instead.
But somewhere along the line, Beilein found his guy in Walton. As he said on Feb. 25, after Walton led the Wolverines to an upset win over Purdue, Beilein got the guard “we always wanted him to be.”
Walton’s teammates had their man to rely on down the stretch, too. And in the locker room, after Michigan’s season had ended, it was clear to see how they found him.
“The thing that hurts the most is to see these guys down, and that’s all that really matters to me,” Walton said. “I love these guys so much, and I just wish we could extend their season.”
Their season. Not my season.
If there were a moment for Walton to be selfish, Thursday night was it.
After four years, he had played the last game of his Michigan career.
He had done everything he could to make sure it wasn’t, too, turning in 20 points — tied for a game high — on 6-for-10 shooting, while adding eight assists and five rebounds.
But that’s Derrick Walton Jr.’s self-described M.O. — a servant leader.
And that’s why — at some point this season — everyone figured out who they wanted with the ball in his hands against the Ducks on Thursday night.
It’s not because Walton played outside of himself for the final six weeks of Michigan’s season.
It’s because he’s type of person you trust to keep your season alive.