With the the Michigan State basketball team up by 11 on Michigan, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. ran a full-out, stride-by-stride sprint with guard Bryn Forbes after a ball that broke lose on the block ‘M’ at centercourt rolled toward the baseline. Walton dived onto the hardwood, getting to the ball before Forbes, but knocked it out of bounds.
Ball to Michigan State.
He rested on his back and looked up at Crisler Center’s rafters as “Eye of the Tiger” pumped out of the speakers. This would be the Wolverines’ biggest chance at swinging the game in their favor and getting within 10 points of the Spartans. After allowing Michigan State (7-4 Big Ten, 20-4 overall) to get to an 18-point lead in the first 13 minutes, mostly due to Forbes’ 8-for-10 half that included seven makes from beyond the arc for 23 points, it looked like this could be Michigan’s chance at getting a solid footing.
It wasn’t, and the game continued to escalate in the Spartans’ favor. By halftime, Michigan State was up big, 44-28. By the end of the game, Michigan (7-4, 17-7) was barely breathing, with the Spartans working their lead up to 28 points before ultimately winning, 89-73.
Walton, the only active member on Michigan’s roster from the state of Michigan, mentioned that missing last year’s game against Michigan State was painful and that this season, he was going to make sure his presence was felt. And it was, at times, but his highs and lows were always highlighted by his matchup with Forbes.
The game started out with a Forbes 3-pointer — just a small hint of the onslaught to come — but Walton responded on the next play with a triple of his own. It happened again later, with a little over a minute until halftime, but this time, Walton struck first. He sunk a 3-pointer, and 20 seconds later, Forbes responded.
Then Forbes, a Lansing native, attacked again, hitting another 3-pointer to close out the half on back-to-back scoring possessions. That was Michigan’s biggest problem: For every basket it made, the Spartans had more than just a counter-attack ready.
“Once (Forbes) got real hot, they moved Walton, who’s a phenomenal defender, on him, and we didn’t get as many (shots) the second half,” Izzo said. “Trying to get those three perimeter guys to guard is very important, and Walton can’t guard all three. I thought he shut him down pretty good the second half.”
Junior forward Zak Irvin, who led the Wolverines with 19 points, thinks that the Wolverines had a bigger problem, one involving mental toughness and a lack of a personal stake in the game.
“I was just fed up with the way we’ve been playing the past two games,” Irvin said. “I feel like we need to take it more personally, especially this game against Michigan State, I mean this is a huge game against the best team in the state, and I just feel like we weren’t there today.”
Though his some of his teammates may not have “taken it personally,” it was obvious who had.
Walton played a physical game up against Forbes, who led the Spartans on 10-for-13 shooting for 29 points, but Forbes still made nearly every shot he took, whether it was an open look or a contested layup.
Walton didn’t fare as well, shooting 3-for-10 for 11 points, but helped slow down Forbes in the second half.
“As a kid out of Michigan, you definitely want to beat Michigan State,” Irvin said of Walton. “I felt the same way when we played Indiana. Out of Indiana, you really wanna beat that team and you want to play well.
“(Walton) fought hard. Some of those, he just had to tip his hat. (Forbes) made some tough shots, but other ones, he had wide-open looks.”
Saturday’s rivalry game wasn’t anywhere near being a close contest — from tip-off until the final buzzer — and it was obvious that the Wolverines needed a boost, or at least to feel a stronger connection to what was supposed to be the biggest contest of the year.