WASHINGTON — Zak Irvin had the ball in his hands with the score tied at 65 and just 12 seconds left in regulation.
It was bad enough that the senior wing decided to launch a triple attempt that clanged off the rim. Worse yet, the clock still read 1.7. Worst of all, Northwestern threw a full-court Hail Mary pass and laid it up as the buzzer sounded to win the game.
“Hero ball” — a phrase not meant to be a compliment — has been widely used to characterize Irvin throughout the season, and the chorus rang louder than ever before after a tight back-and-forth affair in a crucial contest between the two teams tied for sixth place in the conference last Wednesday.
Fast forward to Friday afternoon.
Irvin had the ball in his hands with just 18 seconds left in regulation. But this time, Michigan faced a 66-64 deficit in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Calling off any help with Purdue guard Dakota Mathias stationed directly between him and the hoop, Irvin put himself in the position of becoming the scapegoat once again.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been used to it. Irvin’s start to conference play gave off the impression that he had the potential to be more than an All-Big Ten honorable mention, but he instead fell victim to a lengthy scoring slump.
While he dealt with a decreased level of production, his roommate and fellow captain Derrick Walton Jr. became the undisputed go-to guy for the Wolverines. The senior guard posted five consecutive games with over 20 points, notched four double-doubles and joined Michigan’s exclusive 1,000-point, 400-rebound, 400-assist club.
Any betting person watching the game Friday would have wagered a lot of money that the ball would — and should — be in Walton’s hands. But that’s not the way Walton sees it.
“You got two guys that want to make big plays in the biggest moments of the game, and you can’t go wrong,” Walton said. “When it’s not him, it’s me, and when it’s not me, it’s him.”
Though Walton had a strong first half against the Boilermakers, finishing with 10 points — second only to redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson’s 18-point outburst — he hadn’t put the ball in the basket at all in the second half. In what Walton described as a frequent “rock, paper, scissors” fight for the big shot between the two, Irvin had the upper hand.
With Mathias guarding him closely, Irvin drove to his left and gained enough separation to see daylight. He ran right by Mathias and laid it up off the glass to tie the game at 66 and send it to overtime.
“It’s great to have somebody like that,” said junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “Somebody who wants to take the big shots and makes the big shots.”
Even better than the climax was his encore performance.
Neither team had managed to score for the opening 2:14 of the extra period, and the tension on both sidelines had reached a boiling point. Though he may not have been wearing a cape, Irvin swooped in to take matters into his own hands again.
He drove to the basket on back-to-back possessions, bypassing Mathias with ease and putting the Wolverines ahead, 70-67, with 1:53 left on the clock. In an overtime period plagued by misses from the floor and fouls on both sides — the two teams combined for just seven points away from the charity stripe — Irvin embraced a self-described “warrior mentality” and took it upon himself to decide the outcome of the game.
That’s not to say he hadn’t already been doing it. While he scored just six points before his clutch streak, he played lockdown defense on Mathias, the fourth-best 3-point shooter in the conference at 45.6 percent, and played all 45 minutes of the game. Mathias hit only one trey all game, and it marked his only points of the contest.
“He has handled this perceived slump that he’s had by just becoming a better defender,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “What he gives us in intangibles, the shot is not as important as what he does.”
In this particular game, however, his big shots made all the difference.
With 7.6 seconds left in overtime, Michigan took a five-point lead, forcing Purdue to foul. Before heading toward the bench, Irvin strutted toward the collection of elated Michigan supporters in the stands, sporting a wide grin and raising his arms jubilantly.
He might as well have had a giant block ‘M’ in the middle of his chest.
“Hero ball” might have a different connotation now.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame. Please be kind.