It started with a plane crash and ended with a championship.
When the final buzzer sounded, Michigan fans threw their hands into the air in victory. The feeling was both joy and relief. Players rushed the court. They jumped and hugged and put on their new shirts and hats exclaiming their new title: Big Ten Tournament Champions.
Coach John Beilein stood on the court surrounded by his players, a TV camera and microphone in his face. He smiled and put his arms around his star seniors, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, who were standing on either side of him. “A lot of people doubted these guys,” he said.
Then he was asked about the week that his team has had. “You’re gonna tell your grandkids about those five days.”
Those five days.
The Michigan basketball team was scheduled to fly to Washington D.C. on Wednesday afternoon, but as the plane accelerated down the runway the pilot was forced to abort takeoff. He slammed on the breaks. The plane skidded on the pavement and then the landing gear collapsed. It smashed into the ground and continued skidding forward through a fence and into a field. Following a quick evacuation of the plane, the damage was assessed. Only minor injuries. Derrick Walton needed stitches for a cut he suffered while leaving through the emergency exit. But the emotional toll would be the most concerning.
As ESPN commentator Dan Dakich said during a pregame interview on Thursday, this was not merely an incident. For all intents and purposes, this was a plane crash.
Back in Ann Arbor, Beilein gave his team the option: Forfeit the next day’s game or fly out early the next morning. The team held a players-only meeting. Despite reservations from some members of the team, the majority ruled. They would board a new jet early Thursday morning, head straight to the arena and play Illinois in their practice uniforms (their game jerseys were still in the belly of the plane, which was under FAA investigation).
Given the circumstances, the expectations were low for the Wolverines. Needless to say, those were shattered. The Maize and Blue came out hot and never cooled off. The lead was 11 at halftime and the final score gave Michigan a 20-point blowout. They played loose. They had fun. They didn’t think about airplanes or danger. It was all about the game they loved.
After the game, Walton told the media, “Once we got on the court, we just got back to doing what we do every day. We just wanted to give it all, have fun with it.”
Irvin echoed Walton’s words. “I think the hardest part for all of us was getting back on the plane. Once we landed, everybody was fine. We were excited to get back on the court, get everything back to normal.”
Back to normal, which, down the final stretch of the regular season, meant winning. They had won six-of-eight entering the tournament and showed no signs of slowing down, though some fans and analysts feared the traumatic events of Wednesday would soon catch up with the Wolverines.
On Friday afternoon Michigan met top-ranked Purdue. The result was a four-point overtime win. The next day they faced a tough Minnesota squad that had recently beaten the Wolverines in overtime. Michigan fought hard and led for most of the game. At halftime it was 11 points. Early in the second half, Michigan extended its lead to 13. That was when things took a turn. The Gophers stormed back and eliminated the comfortable UM lead. The game was tied at 55-55. Beilein took a timeout, which turned out to be a very wise decision. A tired Michigan team finished the game strong, hitting the big shots when needed and escaping with a seven-point win.
Later, when asked about that pivotal timeout, Beilein said, “That timeout was nothing to do about basketball. For the first time all year, I saw us bickering at each other. Somebody didn’t play defense. Somebody backed out. Somebody didn’t run a cut right. That was what that timeout was about.”
It was a teaching moment. It was another opportunity for Beilein to coach young men, not just basketball players. It was a chance for the team to regroup, refresh its mindset and refocus. Call it Beilein being Beilein.
Come Sunday, Michigan was looking at the chance to bring home the school’s first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 1998. The fan base was trembling with anxiety. What it would mean to close out this week with a victory. What kind of story would be told about the Plane Crash Boys, as they became known on Twitter. What a statement for a Michigan team that has been underestimated all season.
The Wolverines arrived on a mission. The game was close for most of the first half, but Michigan was able to jump out to a modest lead early in the second. But it never felt comfortable. Wisconsin battled, but Michigan held its ground. UM extended its lead to 15 in the final minute and then Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stole the ball and dribbled out the longest 17 seconds of the season. It was all finally over.
By early Sunday evening, the Michigan basketball team had etched its name into the record books. Tournament champions. Four wins in four days. The lowest seed to ever win a Big Ten Tournament. And, more than all of that, a team that would let nothing stand in its way.
We learned this past week that there are more important things in life than basketball. But it seems for Michigan that basketball was exactly what the team needed.