With less than a minute left in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Michigan State, the crowd, led by the Maize Rage, starting chanting Derrick Walton Jr.’s name in unison.
The senior guard, though, wasn’t on the court. He was sitting comfortably on the bench next to his teammates as he watched Michigan coach John Beilein substitute the end of his bench into the Wolverines’ 86-57 victory at Crisler Center on Tuesday night.
Walton willed the team to victory with 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. It was a stat line that was just good enough to give him 400 assists in his career, and he joined an elite group of past Michigan players in Jalen Rose and Gary Grant who have all recorded at least 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in their Wolverine careers.
“It’s an honor,” Walton said. “I didn’t notice it, and I didn’t know what was going on. When they told me, I was in awe.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to come to (Michigan), thankful for (Beilein) having faith in a young kid from Detroit and that he trusts me to run this team.”
It’s been a long time coming for the Detroit native, and to have it come against Michigan State made it just a bit sweeter. It was Michigan’s first win over its in-state rival in over three years. Walton was just a freshman the last time the Wolverines celebrated a win over the Spartans.
“It means a lot to me,” Walton said. “I’m an inner-city kid, and there’s a couple Michigan guys on that team. Having bragging rights with my little brother, (Michigan State guard Cassius Winston), is always fun.”
Three years ago, Walton was just a role player on a team abundant with talent. Now, Walton is the leader on a team right on the edge of the NCAA Tournament, a completely different situation from the one Michigan was in three years prior.
“I can’t say enough about Derrick Walton right now,” Beilein said. “He came in (as a freshman) with a star-studded team. He was sort of forced into being a leader before he was really ready to do that.
“I think he’s finally comfortable with all the experience (over his Michigan career) to really play with that ‘extra’ that you need to be a really good player.”
While Walton made a huge impact in the game, there was nothing abnormal about his stat line. It was the same Walton that had averaged 18.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his last eight games.
What was different, though, was his teammates. From sophomore forward Moritz Wagner dominating Spartan forward Nick Ward inside to junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman stepping up to score 16 points, it was the players around Walton that made the difference.
That was where Walton, the leader of the team, made the biggest impact.
Michigan’s season has varied wildly from the Wolverines’ 30-point win over Indiana two weeks ago to Michigan’s lackluster performance on Saturday in its loss to Ohio State. It’s an alarming trend that has set the Wolverines back multiple times this season, and Walton wanted a change.
So, he has recently started to push his teammates harder than he ever has because he knows the potential of his team. And Tuesday night, his teammates repaid him.
“That was very important for us, to get that win for Mr. Walton over there,” Wagner said. “He played a heck of a game.”
Added Walton: “Before the game, the guys really banded together and told me they really wanted to get this for me, and they played like it. I’m really appreciative of it all. Everybody played their heart out.”
But even after a big win over Michigan State, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Wolverines will have seven games left to improve their NCAA Tournament resume. However, five of the seven come on the road, where Michigan is winless this season, while it will also host No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 16 Purdue. Walton knows that, and knowing the opportunity his team has ahead, he chooses to look at the positives.
“We have seven games left, and I think we can still do something special,” Walton said.
Even if he didn’t know he had joined the 1000-point, 400-rebound and 400-assist club until after he came off the court, he knew one thing for sure. He knew the score, and for just the third time in his Michigan career, the Wolverines had more points than the Spartans at the end of the game.
And for Walton, that’s all that matters.