MINNEAPOLIS — Derrick Walton Jr. was unstoppable. Zak Irvin was unstartable.
But as Michigan flirted with disaster against a team making its 12th attempt at a first Big Ten win, the ball found itself briefly in Zak Irvin’s hands, then in Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s, and never in Walton’s.
Abdur-Rahkman drew contact, made his layup and calmly sank the free throw, making the play of the night to cap the game of Walton’s season.
“I’m equally excited whenever somebody makes a play,” Walton said.
Nobody doubted Walton’s excitement. But given the night he had, in which he scored a career-high 26 points, collected eight rebounds and dished out seven assists, it was simply surprising that the game-deciding play didn’t involve him.
Leading by two points, having just seen their 19-point advantage blown to pieces, the Wolverines needed a bucket to prevent the unthinkable — a loss to Minnesota (0-12 Big Ten, 6-18 overall).
Walton had shouldered roles of facilitator, distributor, scorer and even rebounder earlier in the game, but said afterward his takeover had little to do with Michigan’s early-game stagnancy on offense or some of his teammates’ shooting woes.
“I don’t think it was because the guys were missing shots,” Walton said. “I was just trying to get the offense flowing.”
The offense flowed, to be sure, but it flowed entirely through Walton, who did well to put a rough week behind him. Walton shot just 3-for-10 from the field in Saturday’s loss to Michigan State and in last Tuesday’s loss to Indiana, both of which were blowouts and both of which happened on the Wolverines’ home floor.
“Tonight was a fresh start for me,” Walton said.
It was no coincidence, according Michigan coach John Beilein. Walton was told in explicit terms what he needed to do to help the Wolverines over the hump, and he went above and beyond.
“He responded to the games and he responded to some strong coaching the last couple games, too,” Beilein said, referencing a late-game play at the rim that helped seal the win. “He’s got more responsibilities. … He’s got to be able to do more and hang in there. And that was huge for him. All those 3s were nice, (but) I loved his finish down the right lane.”
Walton’s performance proved all the more important in light of Irvin’s struggles. The junior forward, who drew attention for an impassioned outburst during a late-game timeout against Michigan State and openly questioned his team’s mental toughness following both losses, shot just 1-for-8 on the night, finishing with four points, two rebounds and three assists.
Abdur-Rahkman’s and-1 to seal the game was an unassisted play, but the play ran through Irvin, a surefire sign that Beilein’s confidence never withered.
“We were just trying to get Zak in the paint and find somebody,” Beilein noted, saying he thought Walton might have been suffering from fatigue late in the second half. “I felt (Irvin) had the matchup. … Zak had had a nice couple rests. I felt at that time that I wasn’t going to put it in Derrick’s hands, but he could play off of Zak.
Lo and behold, Irvin got into the paint, and he found somebody.
“I know they were listening,” Beilein said, “because they did it well.”