Derrick Walton Jr. has started over 100 games for Michigan in his career, and the Wolverines have needed every minute of his experience, leadership, and will to win in its recent stretch of games.
Walton came into Saturday’s contest against Ohio State (4-7 Big Ten, 14-10 overall) averaging 18.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in Michigan’s past five games.
The senior guard had proven to his team and the Wolverine faithful that any hopes of a top-half Big Ten finish and NCAA Tournament trip rested upon his shoulders.
So when Michigan (4-6, 14-9) faced a four-point deficit with just over half a minute to go, everyone knew who and where the Wolverines’ next shot was going to come from.
Within just a few ticks of the clock, Walton had the ball in his hands, positioned behind the 3-point line, corked to fire the shot that would bring Michigan within a point of digging out of a second-half hole it had dug itself into.
To no one’s surprise, Walton hit the shot, and after the Buckeyes missed a free throw on the other end, Walton had the ball in his hands again to potentially send the game to overtime or even win it outright.
But Walton, whose body was moving faster than anyone’s in Crisler Center on Saturday, rushed the shot, pulling up from two with 16 seconds remaining, and watched it clank off the rim.
Ohio State extended its lead to four following a pair of free throws, and time had run out for the Wolverines to come back, falling to the Buckeyes, 70-66.
“I took a shot I thought was the best shot available,” Walton said. “I’ve made that shot a thousand times. Kind of left it short, but, again, the ball just didn’t go in.”
Michigan had clawed back from multiple eight-point deficits to make the game close in its final possessions. Walton spearheaded the Wolverines’ effort, finishing with a season-high 25 points and 10 rebounds. Sixteen of his points came in the second half, in which Michigan never had the lead, though it had tied the game on two occasions.
With 4:23 left on the clock, Walton hit one of his six 3-pointers on the night to knot the game at 60. Two minutes later, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson dialed up from deep to tie the game at 63 — the closest the Wolverines would be to tasting a lead in the final 20 minutes.
Michigan’s struggles were exposed within the opening 1:08 of the second half, when sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and Wilson had each picked up their third fouls. The Wolverines had no choice but to rely on two bench players — senior forward Mark Donnal and redshirt junior wing Duncan Robinson — to carry the load for the two most productive players in their frontcourt.
Michigan had an 11-point advantage in the first half, but that lead evaporated as the Buckeyes’ big men began to bully the Wolverines’ post defenders down low. Ohio State went into halftime with a one-point lead thanks to a massive 20-8 advantage it had on the glass. Of the Buckeyes’ 20 first-half rebounds, 10 came on the offensive end, allowing them to keep possessions alive and the ball away from Michigan on offense.
Ohio State ended up handily winning the contest on the boards, outrebounding the Wolverines 42-24 on the night, including a 16-7 advantage on the offensive glass.
“In a game when it looked like it was so under control from the first couple minutes of the game, things turned with all the missed shots they had and the offensive rebounds they got,” Walton said. “We just got to get back to the basics of being tough.”
With its two key big men in foul trouble and without an answer to the Buckeyes’ dominance inside, Michigan knew it had to change its game plan to make up for the deficit it then faced.
Michigan began hunting shots outside the arc, with 22 of its 30 field-goal attempts in the second half coming from deep. The Wolverines hit just 32 percent of those shots and 27 percent of all of their second-half attempts, coming up with empty possessions that made their job on the defensive end much tougher.
“We wanted to drive the ball really hard into the paint,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We had a package to throw the ball inside to (Wagner) as much as we could. They took some of that away, we didn’t do it sometimes, and he was in foul trouble. So we couldn’t get enough of the post touches as we wanted to get.”
Despite Walton’s heroics down the stretch, Michigan didn’t get the bounces it needed to finish off the Buckeyes in the end. The Wolverines’ postseason hopes now lie damaged, as the road to a potential NCAA Tournament berth becomes much harder with just over a month left in the Big Ten regular season.
“Complaining about our circumstances won’t help,” Walton said. “That’s pretty much how I look at it as. Circumstances are what they are, even though you hate that they’re this way. Everybody’s got something going on at this point of year. Nothing’s perfect.”
“But if what we’re going through at this point spearheads a run and us taking the next step in some places we lagged in, then I’m all for it. I’m more so excited. I think it’ll make it a better story. “