Betelhem Ashame: Just another day in March
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INDIANAPOLIS — Zak Irvin scored 16 points. So did Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. DJ Wilson scored 19.
The Michigan men’s basketball team scored a total of 92. They would need every single point against Oklahoma State.
With 3.7 seconds on the clock, Cowboy guard Jawun Evans received the inbound pass with his team down by four. He drove coast-to-coast for the second straight possession and pulled up from behind the arc.
As the final buzzer sounded, Evans nailed the triple, but it didn’t matter. The Wolverines had escaped with a thrilling 92-91 win over Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
On any other day, the sophomore would have been the leading scorer who guided his team to victory. But on this day, that crown belonged to Derrick Walton Jr.
The senior guard scored a game-high 26 points, and was responsible for more than half of Michigan’s overall tally. He also dished out 11 assists, only one shy of Evans, and pulled down five boards.
A stat line like that would equate to a career day for most players. For Walton, it was just another day in March.
“We go as he goes,” said redshirt junior forward Duncan Robinson. “So hopefully, he’s got more left in the tank.”
The senior has taken full advantage of his curtain call, putting on a show every time he has stepped onto the court this postseason. In the Big Ten Tournament, Walton exemplified the Most Outstanding Player. In the Big Dance, he kept up that level of play.
Walton became just the second player in Big Ten history with 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game. The only other? Magic Johnson in 1979.
At the start of Friday’s contest, though, that type of performance looked highly unlikely.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner picked up two early fouls and took a seat on the bench with 15:49 left in the first half, launching Michigan’s offense into a downward spiral. Without his pick-and-pop partner in Wagner, Walton found it hard to make plays.
The Cowboys began to press the Wolverines high up the court, and Evans kept a tight guard on Walton. Struggling to find any room to breathe, let alone space to shoot, Walton finished the stanza 1-for-6 from the field with just seven points.
“Their pressure bothered us early,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… They were trying to slow us down and make us change in the middle.”
Added Walton: “They pressured us and took us out of sets. We haven’t played a team that got up into it in a minute. It’s hard to emulate that in practice.”
At the 7:51 mark, Beilein took an uncharacteristic risk and put Wagner back in the game to combat Oklahoma State’s defensive alignment. Walton responded immediately to his big man’s return.
Down by seven, the Wolverines initiated a quick turnaround. Walton found Wagner for a driving layup and Abdur-Rahkman for a transition trey, and then Irvin knocked down another triple to give Michigan a one-point lead.
After playing just six minutes of the first half, Wagner played just eight in the second. While that could have spelled disaster for the Wolverines, Walton wouldn’t let it.
Michigan shot a blistering 11-for-15 from beyond the arc in the second half, and Walton hit almost half of them with five. Evans tried to keep up, but his game is predicated on driving to the rim not pulling up from deep.
With Evans focused on stopping Walton on defense, the guard engaged his teammates in the offensive onslaught.
“He’s a heck of a point guard,” Irvin said. “He makes things easier for all of us because he attracts so much attention to himself, which frees up everyone else.”
On Thursday, the Cowboys had emphasized their defensive strategy would be based around closing out shooters on the perimeter. On Friday, Walton dished dimes through that same defense.
Finding the hot hands of Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, Walton helped the Wolverines open up a lead as large as eight.
Though Oklahoma State clawed its way back in late, Walton ensured Michigan would be in the driver’s seat down the stretch.
With Walton behind the wheel in March, the Wolverines may very well have a long road to travel.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame. Please be kind.