INDIANAPOLIS — With the seconds ticking down in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal matchup with Indiana, Derrick Walton Jr. had a chance to be the hero.
The junior guard dribbled up the floor with the shot clock turned off, the game tied at 69 and the Wolverines needing a win to get themselves back in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid.
With four seconds left, Indiana forward Max Bielfeldt slipped and dropped to the floor, and freshman forward Mortiz Wagner set a pick on Hoosier forward Troy Williams, allowing Walton to roll out to the right and have a wide-open look at a game-winning 3-pointer.
But he didn’t take it.
Instead, Walton dished the ball to Kam Chatman in the corner, and after a moment of hesitation, the sophomore forward buried the shot. Not only did it win the game for the Wolverines, but also gave Walton his Big Ten Tournament-record 12th assist of the game.
“When we got the ball back, in my mind I was shooting it,” Walton said. “But something told me, out the periphery of my eye, that somebody’s gonna make a big play.”
Walton has proven that he’s not afraid of taking big shots — he hit a late game-tying 3 against Wisconsin just last season — but the Derrick Walton who has showed up at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Big Ten Tournament has been a different kind of player.
Despite playing a total of 77 minutes over two games in the tournament, Walton hasn’t even made a basket yet — his 4 total points have all come from the free-throw line. But Walton is still making a difference in the games — he has 17 assists and 10 rebounds, and he has played some of the best defense on the floor.
Simply put, Walton has been the perfect teammate.
“That’s what we do here,” Walton said. “It’s more than just yourself. I could easily have gotten down on myself that I wasn’t getting the opportunities that I usually get, but that’s not how I operate. It’s all about the team, so whatever way I can help the team — whether it was just locking in defensively or just finding guys that are hot — that’s just what I was gonna do tonight.”
Walton’s defensive effort certainly showed up in the box score Friday, as he limited guard Yogi Ferrell to 14 points and only one 3-pointer. Ferrell, a player of the year contender, dropped seven 3s on the Wolverines in one game in 2014, and he was the leading scorer when Indiana went on an unfathomable 28-0 run and beat Michigan on Feb. 2.
But Walton made sure this game never got away from the Wolverines, constantly disrupting the Hoosiers’ fast-paced offense and rattling their best player.
And even though he’s missed 10 straight shots over the past two games, Walton’s confidence hasn’t wavered. Instead of letting his shooting slump permeate the rest of his game, he has found other ways to help Michigan win.
“I’m all about winning,” Walton said. “Whether it’s me having to score 25, me getting 10 rebounds, me getting 10 assists, or not even looking at the basket and just making sure my guy doesn’t get a clean look. In my head, every shot I take is going in — my confidence never wavers. (When) my teammates are doing so well, my shot becomes the second or third option.”
That mindset definitely played into his late-game decision, as he quickly ran the numbers in his head and tried to pass to the player with the best chance to make the shot.
The only problem? He initially thought Chatman was sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins, who has shot 46 percent from beyond the arc this year.
Chatman buried the shot anyway, and Walton — who considers Chatman a close friend off the court — couldn’t have been happier. He knows he’s fully capable of hitting those shots, but having his friend deliver the winning blow made the moment even sweeter.
“It’s a lot more special,” Walton said. “The relationship outside this basketball team — it goes way beyond basketball. That’s what makes moments like this so special.”