Michigan goes from plane crash to Big Ten champs

Wolverines wanted to make tournament 'greatest story ever told'

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Michigan men’s basketball team started its Big Ten Tournament week being evacuated from an airplane at the end of a runway.

The Wolverines ended their week in Washington, D.C., as Big Ten Tournament champions.

As the eighth seed, Michigan had to go through top-seeded Purdue, fourth-seeded Minnesota and second-seeded Wisconsin in the championship game to snag the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But as when dealing with the adversity and difficulty of even getting to Verizon Center, the Wolverines handled their opponents with the same poise.

It’s a week of memories that will last forever.

“What I told them is, ‘You’re going to come back 20 years from now and that trophy is going to sit there and you’re going to tell your grandkids about those five days.’ About those five days and what happened,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said after the game. “You’ll love it forever. That’s what they can do.”

Basketball wasn’t really a high priority for Michigan on Wednesday night.

The private plane the Wolverines were set to take to Washington, D.C., aborted its takeoff due to high winds and skidded off the runway. There were no significant injuries, but many of the players and coaches were understandably shaken up in the aftermath.

In those moments, though, the players seemed to come together. The tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Derrick Walton Jr., and teammate Zak Irvin had a conversation once they returned home, before heading out the next morning. They talked about making theirs one of the great stories in Big Ten history.

Mission accomplished.

“Once we landed in D.C., we agreed that, ‘Why can’t this be the greatest story ever told?’” Irvin said. “Everybody had that mentality (of), ‘Why not us?’

“When we were tired and fatigued, whatever it might be, that was the extra push we needed to win this championship.”

Michigan (24-11) controlled the game throughout, save for the final few minutes of the first half, when Wisconsin surged into halftime on a 12-3 run. After that, it basically was all Wolverines.

Walton earned MOP honors on the strength of 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds, with just one turnover. For the tournament, Michigan’s point guard averaged 20.5 points and 6.3 assists, and finished with a 3.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

D.J. Wilson added 17 points and six rebounds, while Irvin had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Walton and Irvin were joined by Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig on the All-Tournament team. Koenig led the Badgers with 15 points, while Happ and Hayes each added 14 points and 11 rebounds apiece.

The team watched the NCAA Selection Show in the locker room after cutting down the nets, and saw themselves earn a No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region, facing 10-seed Oklahoma State. They’ll play Friday, which — after the craziness of this week — was welcomed by Beilein.

“The Friday gives us — these first two days we’re not going to do very much. We need two days’ rest. We played Sunday night. Our kids need to rest,” Beilein said. “These guys have been warhorses through it all. They’ve seen so much. Now to get them a championship like this, they deserve it.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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