When Furman came to Crisler Center three days before Christmas, the Paladins had their sights set on playing the Grinch and stealing an upset win to take away the final piece the Michigan men’s basketball team needed on its non-conference resume.
But unlike Dr. Seuss’ original Grinch, where the little girl saved the day, the Wolverines were saved by their two eldest statesmen.
Senior wing Zak Irvin and guard Derrick Walton Jr. combined to score 10 of Michigan’s final 12 points to prevent the Wolverines from falling victim to an upset, securing a 68-62 victory.
Heading into the final minutes of play, Michigan simply couldn’t find its stroke from beyond the arc. The Wolverines were 0-for-10 from 3-point range in the second half, and just 3-for-19 for the game with less than a minute to go.
The shooting struggle seemed to irk many of Michigan’s younger players, including sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson, but the slump had no effect on the pair of seniors
When Irvin found Walton being guarded on the perimeter by a Paladin forward with 25 seconds left and the Wolverines up three, Irvin knew his fellow senior was about to stick the dagger into Furman’s heart.
“(Walton) made a shot like that earlier in the first half,” Irvin said. “I know, especially when it’s crunch time, I know what he’s capable of. I knew right when I passed it to him. I started running back because I knew it was good. “
Added Walton: “I made the shot earlier in the first half, so I kind of knew what I was going to go to when I caught it. At that point, it was just about making the shot, and I was happy.”
Irvin is credited with the assist on that bucket, but he started helping Walton earn that score plays earlier.
In need of a confident scorer to find some points, Michigan coach John Beilein ran his offense through Irvin. When the senior too seemed to be infected with the shooting bug, he sparked his game from the inside.
Two crucial pull-up jumpers from the free-throw line extended the Wolverines’ lead to five with less than three minutes to go. Those baskets also gave Michigan the breathing room it needed to come up with crucial stops on defense down the stretch.
“When shots aren’t falling, especially from three, being able to get in a rhythm with pull-ups or just getting to the free-throw line definitely helps you,” Irvin said.
Walton and Irvin also led the way on the defensive end in the final minutes. On the possession prior to Walton’s crucial three, the pair forced the Paladins’ guards to hold onto the ball late in the shot clock, leading to a turnover on the baseline.
Overall, the Wolverines held Furman to just two points in the final 2:34, and it was Walton and Irvin who held down the fort defensively for Michigan over that span.
“Tonight, what won us the game was defense,” Irvin said. “You just kind of roll with the punches. Everything is not going to be the exact same every game. Shots are not going to fall every time. Tonight was a testament to us finding a different way to win. Just getting to the basket and to the hoop.”
The Wolverines will now head into a holiday break before the start of Big Ten play feeling thankful that their two wise men guaranteed their Christmas wouldn’t be spoiled.