WASHINGTON — “It felt like pain. I was thinking, you either submit to the pain or you keep pushing.”
Derrick Walton Jr. was talking about running away from the plane. He could have just as easily been talking about Michigan’s season roughly a month ago.
The Wolverines could have submitted to the pain and accepted a season that was spiraling toward mediocrity and an NIT bid, or kept pushing and earn an invitation to the only March tournament that matters.
Michigan chose the latter, and the 33 days that followed all led to Thursday afternoon, as the Wolverines took the floor for their opening matchup of the Big Ten Tournament against Illinois.
They had all the excuses in the world to swallow one loss, pack their bags and go home.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the power went out in Crisler Center. Michigan chose to practice in the dark.
A few hours later they boarded a plane to Washington D.C. They never made it in the air — skidding off the runway due to high-speed winds and an aborted takeoff. Walton picked up a gash on his knee that needed five stitches. He still tied fellow senior Zak Irvin for a team-high 37 minutes played against Illinois.
After the accident, they went back to Ann Arbor. They woke up this morning at 6 a.m., took a bus to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, departed at 7:30, landed at 8:45 and took a bus straight to the arena.
“Curfew was 10 last night,” said senior forward Sean Lonergan. “I’ll give you five dollars if you can find anybody who probably fell asleep at 10 o’clock. Everybody was just — still had that adrenaline kicking.”
Michigan was supposed to tip off at noon. The Big Ten told the Wolverines that they were willing to move the game time. Michigan asked for 20 minutes instead.
Illinois was playing for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Wolverines could have lost and still gone dancing.
And then there was the issue of jerseys — albeit the least of Michigan’s worries. The Wolverines were required to leave their gear on the plane as it was part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s investigation of the accident.
They improvised, hitting the hardwood at Verizon Center in their practice jerseys — outfitted more like an AAU team than a Division I basketball program. Then they punched Illinois in the mouth, finishing with a 20-point victory to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“That was kind of the question walking back into the locker room, like, ‘If we get our real jerseys back tonight, what do we do tomorrow?’” Lonergan said. “I’m sure we’ll have a conversation about that.
“I don’t have any clue what the status of our actual jerseys are, so who knows at this point? … I like it. I like it a lot.”
This is the same team Illinois center Maverick Morgan called “white collar” back in January.
And in truth, maybe they were. Maybe the stigma of being “soft” that has followed the Wolverines in the modern era was warranted. Then again, that’s the point.
As senior guard Andrew Dakich said: “Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes it makes us mad that they’re right.”
Michigan’s senior class has seldom gone a day without hearing the outside chatter. The five seniors walked into it, and they’ve spent their careers denying it. But on Thursday, they finally made you believe them.
“A lot of people question our toughness, and I think that kind of sums it up right there,” said senior forward Mark Donnal. “It takes a tough team to be able to move on from that. … It tells a lot about our team — the type of guys we have, the type of characters, that are able to just kind of move on from something that happened to them so recently. We were not feeling bad for ourselves, we were ready to play basketball.”
So call the Wolverines soft. Tell them they’re a white-collar team. After the last 24 hours, frankly, they don’t give a damn.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo. People forget that you can @ him.