LINCOLN — With just over five minutes remaining, senior wing Zak Irvin pulled up from beyond the arc and nailed a 3-pointer. Irvin’s shot didn’t matter. It put the Wolverines up by 30 in a game that had long been over.
But who Irvin received the pass from did matter. With Irvin’s shot, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. notched the 15th of his 16 assists on the night, breaking Michigan’s single-game assist record formerly held by Gary Grant.
“Andrew (Dakich) told me that I was close,” Walton said. “Of course I was looking for guys the entire game, but Zak said he felt good, and we ran an action for him to come up. He got an open look, and I smiled, and I told him I loved him after.”
Added Irvin: “Aww. I don’t hear that too often.”
Behind Walton, the Michigan men’s basketball team routed Nebraska, 93-57, on Sunday night to cap off its regular season with a road victory in what was a seemingly meaningless game prior to tip-off.
After all, the Wolverines’ fate had already been decided when Iowa defeated Penn State at noon and simultaneously locked Michigan (10-8 Big Ten, 20-11 overall) in as the eighth seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
Still, the Wolverines had been dismal away from Crisler Center prior to the matchup with the Cornhuskers (6-12, 12-18), entering Pinnacle Bank Arena with an uninspiring 2-8 road record.
Sunday night wasn’t a chance to put those problems entirely to bed, but it was certainly an opportunity to take a step in the right direction before beginning a postseason during which an ability to play in front of hostile crowds could prove to be the difference between moving on and going home. And to make matters worse, Michigan was tasked with responding from a gut-wrenching, buzzer-beater loss to Northwestern just four days prior.
The Wolverines recovered in full.
“I said twice in the locker room … that I had no idea how we were gonna play tonight,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That Northwestern loss was so disappointing for these guys, but they handled it like they always handle it. They wanted to bounce back. They practiced well.
“We had this late game Sunday, you have to wait all day. … To me it seemed like forever when you’ve been through a whole season. Then they went out, and they were absolutely excellent from beginning to end.”
A pair of layups by Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby and Ed Morrow Jr. bookended a stretch in which Michigan scored 14 consecutive points to claim a 14-4 lead within the game’s first five minutes. The Cornhuskers weren’t helping themselves either, turning the ball over six times during the stretch and allowing the Wolverines to notch eight points off them.
At first, it wasn’t a matter of Michigan’s defense being anything exceptional. Nebraska still finished the first half shooting 56.5 percent from the floor, but they were plagued by 10 turnovers in the opening frame.
On the opposite end, the Wolverines were running an offensive clinic from the outset. They finished the first half shooting 59.3 percent from the floor and 53.3 percent from beyond the arc, led by sophomore forward Moritz Wagner’s 11 first-half points off three 3-pointers and perfect mark from the floor.
This time, though, the Wagner show didn’t last the whole game. Senior wing Zak Irvin and junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman each finished the game with 15 and 13 points, respectively, and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. pulled the strings like a puppeteer — notching nine of his 16 assists in the first half before singlehandedly dismantling the Cornhuskers in the second stanza.
Though Nebraska opened the second half with a layup, it turned the ball over on the next three consecutive possessions. At the 16:37 mark, Walton had already notched a double-double. With just over 11 minutes remaining, there were fans already heading toward the exits. And with 10 minutes left in the contest, Michigan led by 30.