WASHINGTON — The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
After attempting to take off for the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday afternoon, the Wolverines’ team plane slid off the runway amid turbulent winds. Though no one faced serious injury, Michigan faced a long delay in reaching Washington, D.C.
The Wolverines didn’t arrive at the Verizon Center until approximately 10:40 a.m. Thursday morning — less than an hour and a half before their scheduled noon tip-off against No. 9 seed Illinois (18-14 overall) — after a 7:30 a.m. flight from Detroit courtesy of the NBA’s Pistons.
With their game uniforms still on the plane that crashed in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines took the court in their practice attire of maize jerseys and blue shorts.
But different clothes and a different time didn’t slow down No. 8 seed Michigan (21-11) against the Fighting Illini, as it rode a red-hot start to a 75-55 victory to advance to the tournament quarterfinals.
“What these guys have been through the last 24 hours has been incredible,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… It’s made them so resilient. They played connected like they were yesterday when we got a hundred-some people off an airplane it seemed like in two minutes.”
The Wolverines looked fresh from the rescheduled 12:20 p.m. tip, dominating the majority of the first half before Illinois began to climb its way back. While those on the outside looking in might have expected Michigan to fall victim to tired legs or distracted minds, the Wolverines were locked in like men on a mission.
“Sometimes it’s more than just basketball we play for,” said sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. “We played out there to prove ourselves, that we’re tough and that nothing can stop us really. And for the sake of this group, it helps us so much to stick together.”
Michigan opened the game on an 15-4 run, punctuated by a rare four-point play from junior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman to take a double-digit lead just five minutes into the contest.
The Wolverines kept rolling in the next five-minute stretch, forcing Fighting Illini coach John Groce to call timeout. After senior wing Zak Irvin stole the ball from Illinois center Maverick Morgan, he lobbed an alley-oop pass to redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson, who took flight and emphatically finished at the rim to put Michigan ahead, 22-9.
The Wolverines built a 20-point lead soon thereafter, capitalizing on nine forced turnovers which they scored 12 points off in the stanza.
“I think that’s the No. 1 team offensively in the Big Ten,” said Illinois guard Tracy Abrams. “When you play guys like that, little things matter. Every play, every possession matters.”
But Illinois responded with a 15-4 run of its own to close the half, led by Abrams. With a personal 10-0 stretch, he drove through the lane with ease and finished from both the key and the perimeter to limit Michigan to a 40-29 halftime lead.
On the other side of the break, Abrams started where he left off, nailing another triple to narrow the Wolverines’ lead to single digits for the first time since the first five minutes of the opening stanza.
As has often been the case for the Wolverines this season, though, in the moments when the Fighting Illini began to threaten, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. provided the steady hand to right the ship for Michigan. Walton immediately answered back with a 3-pointer of his own, part of his 12-point outburst in the second half to finish with a team-high 19 total.
Though the Wolverines thought they had the game all wrapped up down the stretch, Illinois began another comeback attempt, cutting Michigan’s lead to 10 with just four minutes left on the clock. That’s when Walton nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Wolverines all the breathing room they would need to close out the blowout win.
Despite the challenging circumstances of their journey to Washington, D.C., Michigan proved that it still had much to play for in the tournament. But in this particular game, the Wolverines put their bodies on the line for one particular man.
Thanks to their high energy and clear focus, Beilein earned the 210th victory of his Michigan career to become the winningest coach in program history.
“It’s an awesome feeling, especially with Coach B, one of the best coaches in the country,” Irvin said. “He’s done so much for this program, for the players. …It’s just an amazing accomplishment, and I’m just so happy to be a part of it.”
As chaotic as the past 24 hours have been for Michigan, the next 24 hours won’t let up — as they now have another game to play in the tournament against No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday at noon.