In March, there are stories made every single season — from cinderella teams to the headliner of the Final Four.
Here’s one for you: Michigan’s plane didn’t take off on Wednesday afternoon, but the team has.
The Wolverines just topped Minnesota 84-77, after beating Illinois and Purdue, and will advance to the Big Ten Tournament Championship game to take on the No. 2 seed Wisconsin (24-8).
This comes after their plane was unable to take flight and crashed on Wednesday afternoon. The aircraft skid around 400-yards before coming to a halt just short of the ravine. What could have been deadly, turned into a team building moment as the guys rallied around each other in a moment where basketball was the last thought on their minds.
John Beilein gave his team two choices: forfeit the Illinois game, or play on. “I was with them either way,” said Beilein to the press after the decision.
Earlier this year Michigan was flat out embarrassed by Illinois on their home court, losing 85-69. After the game Illinois senior Maverick Morgan said something that changed the angle of the Wolverines campaign.
“They are more of a white-collar traditionally and at Illinois we’re about toughness and together.”
At that point in the season, he was right, and Michigan’s senior captain Derrick Walton Jr. knew it. So he called a players only meeting, and general question that needed to be answered was this: Who does this team want to be this season?
Looking back, that meeting saved this teams season, and that almost goes without question. It made Michigan tougher, it gave them an identity, and they have taken it personally ever since.
After winning 9-of-11 games to end the season, their whole world was shaken by this plane crash, yet they didn’t back down.
They could have died, and that’s the truth.
With that being said, Michigan (23-11) decided as a team they would fly to D.C. Thursday morning, and this time the flight went well, and the game went even better.
The Tournament itself
While rocking practice uniforms, Michigan dusted Illinois 75-55, then proceeded to take the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Ten Purdue to overtime and won 74-70.
After the accident, a late arrival to the Verizon Center and an overtime game against the conference’s top seed, you would think the Wolverines might drag their feet a little bit in the semifinal game against Minnesota.
But of course they didn’t, because this team won’t let themselves do that.
They jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, that then elevated to a 31-15 advantage. However, Minnesota responded. The Gophers went on a 18-8 run until Duncan Robinson hit a 3-pointer and Walton scored a couple layups to extend Michigan’s lead 47-36 at halftime.
Once again, Minnesota refused to drop off as they went on a 19-8 run to tie the game at the 13:07 mark in the second half, and the wheels finally seemed to be falling off for Michigan.
In the Illinois game, it was D.J. Wilson doing the scoring and carrying Michigan. Then against Purdue it was Zak Irvin, who has been criticized throughout his career for playing “hero ball”, who was the leader for Michigan down the stretch, tying the game with a layup and continued to take it to the rack and score in overtime. His efforts pushed a gassed group of players to the next round.
While Moe Wagner had a solid game on offense against the Gophers, it was no secret who got Michigan to their third Big Ten championship game in the 20-year history of the tournament. The same player who has got Michigan where they are right now.
Derrick Walton Jr.
The Detroit native has had plenty of games to point to down the stretch this season, but this was his most masterful performance of them all. Walton scored 11 of his 14 second half points in a 14-6 run that essentially gave Michigan a lead they never gave back, resulting in a win. Walton scored a career-high 29 points while adding nine assists and four rebounds.
Michigan hasn’t won the tournament since 1998 when it originally started, and lost to Michigan State back in 2014 when Irvin and Walton were freshman.
If the Wolverines can pull off this victory, and win the Big Ten Tournament, it would be a storybook finish for years to come.
If they are going to get it done, they will need to have everyone contribute at a high-level of play on Sunday, but the player who cut his leg in the plane crash that required five stitches to patch up the wound will be ready.
That player is Derrick Walton. While the plane tried to keep him down, the senior still took off, and the rest of Michigan’s team has followed.