With 2:49 left in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Nebraska on Saturday, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. stepped up to the free-throw line. Michigan fans wouldn’t have wanted the ball in anyone else’s hands.
After trailing the Cornhuskers (4-4 Big Ten, 12-9 overall) for less than a minute the entire game, Michigan (5-2, 15-5) was given a run for its money in the final minutes. So, when Walton was fouled late in the game, fans gave a sigh of relief. He sank both free throws, giving the Wolverines a more comfortable four-point cushion.
Michigan hung on and then some, hitting its final 10 free throws in Lincoln to beat the Cornhuskers, 81-68.
“When (Walton) had the key turnover and all of a sudden it’s a two-point game and they fouled him and now he goes to the line. … I mean those babies hit nothing but the bottom of the net,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That shows another step in him in just being another leader of this team and a guy he can look to.”
Walton scored 19 points on 5-for-8 shooting, grabbed 12 boards and had six assists — three of them coming in the first four minutes — to get Michigan running right out of the gate.
He first found freshman forward Moritz Wagner, who was the first big man off the bench following junior forward Mark Donnal’s early foul.
He was there again 26 seconds later, feeding it to redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson for Robinson’s second 3-pointer of the night. Another 26 seconds later, Walton was at it again, giving it to sophomore forward Aubrey Dawkins from beyond the arc.
All of a sudden, Michigan was out to a 12-4 lead. The Wolverines made six of their first eight shots.
“We got off to a really good start, and I think that helped us a great deal,” Beilein said. “A couple of our away games we lost, we got off to a very bad start. It just wears on you, fighting back. I think we had early confidence.”
Though the Wolverines’ defense seemed impenetrable in the first five minutes, the Cornhuskers quickly figured out how to fight back. They hacked away at Michigan’s lead all the way up until halftime, when they headed into the locker room trailing by just three, and again in the middle of the second half, bringing the game within two points in the final two minutes.
“We withstood a charge at the end of the first half, a charge during the second half — a couple charges during the second half,” Beilein said. “I’m really proud of the way these kids responded to a great college atmosphere in Nebraska.”
Walton scored 13 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer in the game’s final seconds. Walton claims he didn’t shoot the ball to be disrespectful, even though the Nebraska crowd booed it, but his teammates and coaches told him to shoot it to avoid the shot clock violation.
Walton tends to listen to his coaches and teammates, and Saturday, he wanted to give most of the credit to them.
“Our coaches did a really good job of preparing us,” Walton told reporters after the game. “The things that were happening out there were things we really emulated in practice the last couple days. The way we prepared really helped me see the floor a little easier today and think my plays through a little better than I usually do.”
Added Walton on Donnal: “Mark was setting great screens all night and rolling as fast as possible. You know, he made my job a lot easier and all I had to do was give him the ball and let him do what he does.”
Though Walton earned a double-double and started his team’s rally in the final minutes, he seems to be happiest about the Wolverines’ ability to play without senior captain and guard Caris LeVert, who is still recovering from a lower-leg injury.
Walton isn’t a captain, but with both LeVert and co-captain Spike Albrecht cheering from the sidelines, he’s shouldering most of the responsibility. On the road against Nebraska, he looked like one.
“My freshman year at home, we had a really good stretch against Nebraska, we shot the ball really well,” Walton said. “Tonight, it was a little different. I think it was a little more special because we were down without one of our brothers; our leader, Caris, and guys were just making some plays that he wouldn’t normally make.
“Looking over and seeing him happy for the guys who were getting the opportunity with him being out, I think it made it a lot more special.”