Max Bultman: In overtime, a blueprint for Irvin

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 4, 2015

EVANSTON — It almost seemed scripted.

Zak Irvin, he of the early season struggles, the unorthodox jump shot, the questionable clutchness, was gearing up to exorcize one of his demons.

The sophomore forward went to the free-throw line with 15 seconds left in regulation, shooting a 1-and-1 to put Michigan’s three-point lead over Northwestern on ice. Irvin had just hit four straight free throws, and with the rhythm he was in, the next two seemed all but inevitable, as did the coronation of the new Irvin.

But then, iron.

In transition, the Wildcats’ Tre Demps got the ball and hit a cold-blooded, step-back 3.

Irvin put his head down. He had made his first nine free throws of the night, and that last one might have sealed a much-needed road win Tuesday night. It’s that one that will stick with him.

The game was headed to overtime, where the Wolverines had been crushed in their last three appearances. Despite his 19 points and six rebounds in regulation, the questions were going to resurface.

And sure enough, Northwestern jumped out to a quick five-point lead in overtime. It would’ve been hard to blame Irvin if he went back into his shell right then.

But instead, he seemed to forget it even happened. He went down the court and drilled a 3-pointer. Then he grabbed a rebound. Then another. And another. Even in an 82-78 loss, he finished with a career-high 28 points and 11 rebounds.

Irvin isn’t yet the player Michigan hoped he would be by now. He hasn’t been consistent enough, and he still hasn’t put it all together. But sometime between that missed free throw and that 3-pointer, Irvin did something that will help him lose that “not yet” label that’s been chasing him since he got to Ann Arbor: he shook off some of his own doubt.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, I had my head down,” Irvin said. “But my teammates were right there, and the coaching staff was right there saying ‘Hey, we’ve got overtime, we’ve got another five minutes to play.’ ”

It’s really a shame for Irvin that he can’t bask in the light of the best game of his career with a win in hand. In addition to his career highs in points and boards, he posted three assists and a steal with just two turnovers. He looked confident off the dribble and he saw the floor. He threw probably the best pass of his season to Ricky Doyle in the first half, a play that will be lost in the hysteria of Tre Demps’ magic.

And rightfully so — winners still deserve the glory, and shots like Demps’ don’t come along every game… and Demps hit three of them. But for Irvin to put up nine more points and grab five more rebounds after a miss that could very easily have shattered his confidence for the night is remarkable in itself.

“When it was crunch time, I wanted the ball in my hands,” Irvin said.

And that’s what made Tuesday the best game of Irvin’s career. It wasn’t the 28 or the 11. It was that he gathered himself after a massive miss and still demanded the basketball. That never would have come through if he hadn’t missed his late free throw in the first place.

Make no mistake: Northwestern is the team with everything to celebrate Tuesday night. Irvin will sit on a plane with the rest of the Wolverines and try to reconcile the front-end of that 1-and-1 with the rest of his night. He’ll think about overtime, about how he collected himself over and over. He’ll do so with the knowledge that it still didn’t give his team a win.

But if he learned anything from Tuesday, and if he’s ready to shake that “not yet” label, he’ll forget that last part as fast as possible.