Walton’s masterful seven minutes
WASHINGTON — A seven-minute stretch to end the game defined everything Derrick Walton Jr. is to the Michigan men’s basketball team.
With the Wolverines up only one possession against Minnesota on Saturday at the Verizon Center in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, the senior guard thought it was time to take matters into his own hands.
It started with 7:03 left, when Walton came off a screen from redshirt junior Mark Donnal and buried a jumper with a hand in his face.
From there, his best friend and roommate, senior wing Zak Irvin, knew Walton was in the zone.
“I’ve seen this so many times,” Irvin said. “It’s nothing new to me. I knew once he hit that pull up, I could tell in his eyes.”
The shot was the start of Walton’s seven-minute run, when he had a hand in 18 of Michigan’s final 20 points.
It was also succeeded by two dazzling 3-pointers, both of which coming off screens when Minnesota switched a big man onto Walton, to give Michigan a nine-point cushion.
The big shots gave the Wolverines some breathing room after Minnesota came back from as much as 16 points down in the first half to tie the game with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game.
“He’s real clutch,” said redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. “When (the shot) left his hand, I knew it was good.”
But with Minnesota guard Nate Mason putting on a show himself on the other side of the court, Walton wasn’t done.
Two possessions after Walton hit the trey to put Michigan up nine, coach John Beilein stayed seated as Walton dribbled the ball up the court, allowing the Detroit, Mich. native to run a play as he pleased.
Walton called a pick-and-roll, drawing two defenders and leaving redshirt junior Mark Donnal wide open for a layup.
“He’s one of those guys that’s going to get his own points, but he’s also looking out for everybody else,” Donnal said. “He’s always looking out for his teammates. He’s always able to find the open guys. Since he’s able to score, it opens up everybody, and we have a lot of weapons that can put the ball in the basket when he throws them the ball.”
A minute and 40 seconds later, after Walton winded down the clock, drew a foul, and hit two free throws, he found a pass between two defenders to Wilson, who went up for a thunderous dunk to put the Wolverines back up by nine.
It was a pass that Beilein said the team had been trying to complete all season. Saturday night, Walton’s precision was on point, and it finally worked.
“That pass to DJ, we’ve been trying to get that all year long and then he was on it,” Beilein said. “That was a big basket.”
With Walton in the zone calling his own plays, it showed the amount of trust Beilein had in him to run the offense.
It’s trust that has taken a long time — four years to be exact —for Walton to earn. But now that he has it, Walton is running with it.
“(Walton and Beilein) have gotten to point where they have a lot of trust in each other, so sometimes (Beilein) will call a play, and Derrick will be like ‘No, no, I got something,’ ” said senior forward Sean Lonergan.
Added Walton: “(Beilein and I) have the same mindset, it’s just I get to see it from a different lens because I’m on the court. He trusts me completely, and I know for a fact that he has complete faith in me to make the right call.”
Even after Walton’s two assists, though, Minnesota kept attacking on the shoulders of Mason, dwindling Michigan’s lead to three with 49 seconds remaining in the game.
At that point, the Golden Gophers began to foul, and Walton was the one to go to the line.
Just two weeks prior in Minneapolis, Walton missed two crucial free throws with the Wolverines down two in overtime that ultimately led to a crushing 83-78 loss.
While the circumstances were a bit different Saturday afternoon, the implications were just as big.
This time, though, Walton couldn’t miss, nailing both free throws as well as two more 16 seconds later to ice the game and send Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
All in all, Walton ended the seven-minute stretch with 10 points, two assists and a rebound as well as a steal on Lynch to keep Minnesota at bay. Those final seven minutes capped a phenomenal 29-point, five-rebound, nine-assist night. His 29 points were a career high.
It was an outing that captured everything Walton does well for the Wolverines, and one that Wilson said afterward was a “first team All-Big Ten-type performance,” a direct knock to that fact that Mason had been given the honor over Walton.
“I’d very, very surprised if you found anyone in this locker room, maybe anyone in this conference, who doesn’t agree with that,” said junior guard Duncan Robinson when asked if Walton deserved to be on the first team All-Big Ten.
But Walton, being the reserved person that he is, didn’t want to get into that discussion after the game, citing that he only wants to be the best point guard on the floor every time he’s out there.
It’s a demeanor that he’s shown all season, and throughout the four years of his Michigan career off the court.
But with his tenure as a Wolverine starting to come to a close, Walton has shown — especially over the last half of the season — that his play is anything but reserved, citing his “alter ego” when he’s on the court.
And with a chance to add a banner to the rafters of Crisler Center, Walton’s “alter ego” might be just what it takes to get it.