Michigan almost didn’t make it to the Big Ten Tournament.
Four days ago, the Wolverines were huddled in a hangar at Willow Run Airport in Detroit. Less than an hour earlier, the plane that was supposed to shuttle them to Washington, D.C. for this tournament aborted takeoff and slid through the end of the runway, stopping just shy of a ravine. Thankfully, they were safe, but they also were shaken, having just experienced one of the scariest moments of their lives.
Yet the Wolverines were scheduled to tip off against Illinois in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament less than 24 hours later. In a city 529 miles away. Without any alternative travel plans and most of their equipment, including their game uniforms, still in the cargo hold of the plane. John Beilein gave his players the choice: go to Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning to compete or forfeit and stay home.
Some players, including Michigan’s leader, Derrick Walton, who had his leg stitched up after suffering a wound in the crash, were unsure about getting on another plane.
But they did.
And four games later, Michigan is your 2017 Big Ten Tournament champion after the No. 8 Wolverines (24-11, 10-8 B1G) beat No. 2 Wisconsin (25-9, 12-6 B1G), 71-56, on Sunday afternoon. They were led by Walton, who was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player. He tallied a game-high 22 points (6-15 FG), seven assists, and six rebounds, while fellow senior Zak Irvin recorded 15 points (6-9 FG), seven rebounds, and five assists and D.J. Wilson registered 17 points (8-11 FG) and six rebounds.
The Big Ten Tournament title game opened as a heavyweight title fight. The Wolverines’ bigs (Moritz Wagner and Wilson) each buried a wing three before the first television timeout to give Michigan an early 8-6 lead. The Wolverines maintained their lead for the remainder of the first half, but any time that they threw a punch and seemed like they were about to pull away, the Badgers responded with a punch of their own. Michigan landed its biggest blow when, with 6:41 left, Walton went on a personal 9-0 run with back-to-back-to-back threes, the last of which was a step-back that had 2011 Kemba Walker written all over it, to give U-M a 10-point lead (30-20). However, the Wolverines then had a difficult time getting open looks inside and scored only one more field goal in the period — a straightaway three from Irvin. In the meantime, Wisconsin relied on its bread and butter with Ethan Happ (14 points and 11 rebounds) finishing three looks at the rim and Bronson Koenig (15 points) drilling two three-pointers from distance, the last of which a pullup seconds before the buzzer sounded. It was a 12-3 run by Wisconsin to cut U-M’s lead to one at halftime (33-32).
But Michigan made sure the run ended coming out of the locker room after the intermission. The Wolverines scored the first six points of the second half and did not permit Wisconsin to score for the first 5:19. With that cushion, Michigan started to make its move as Irvin and Wilson connected twice. The first time, Irvin hit a rolling Wilson on a pick and roll for an open dunk. The second time, Wilson skied for an offensive rebound — U-M’s first of the contest — and passed the ball to Irvin on the left win. Irvin took it to the rim, scooted to the side of a Badger defender to avoid a charge, and finished through contact for an and-one. That quickly, U-M was back up 10.
Michigan had multiple opportunities to blow the game open, but Wagner missed an open three in transition and Irvin was called for an iffy charge. And, like in the first half, the Badgers did not go away easily. They chipped away at Michigan’s lead, and after a Zak Showalter steal and layup with 6:19 left, the Wolverines held just a 51-45 edge.
Michigan was in dire need of a bucket, and on the ensuing possession after a timeout, the shot clock was winding down. Irvin then curled off a screen on the left wing, caught a pass from Duncan Robinson, and fired up a quick three in rhythm. Splash. Then, two minutes later, Robinson imitated Irvin by hitting an identical three.
Again, Michigan was back up 10 points, but this time, Wisconsin had no counter punch. The Badgers had successive empty possessions in the final minutes that led to transition buckets for the Wolverines. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (7 points) slammed home a dunk, Wilson threw one down as well, and then Walton laid one in.
At that point, Michigan led, 65-62, with 1:18 left, and the celebration began.
And the celebration will continue when Michigan hops on a plane for the second time since the crash with a championship trophy from a tournament they almost missed.