By the time the Michigan men’s basketball team finally took the Verizon Center court Thursday morning, it had already been through more than enough to shake a team.
First, there was the harrowing plane incident Wednesday, in which the Wolverines’ chartered aircraft skidded off the runway toward a ravine amid heavy winds. Then, after their Thursday morning make-up flight landed successfully in Washington D.C. just before 9 a.m., traffic prevented the Wolverines from making it to the arena until 10:40 a.m. for a game that was originally scheduled as a noon tip-off. A 20-minute bump in game time gave them a buffer, but it was still worth wondering whether Michigan could fully show up at tip-off.
But, clad in warm-up uniforms because their game jerseys were tied up with the FAA, the Wolverines came to play. After a 24-hour period fraught with uncertainty, the Wolverines made their own luck in a 75-55 win over No. 9 seed Illinois, advancing to play Purdue at noon on Friday.
Derrick Walton Jr. again led the charge for Michigan, finishing with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds. And this time, he had plenty of help, too.
The Wolverines got a complete performance from their backcourt, as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman tacked on 17 points, and Zak Irvin added 18 points and seven rebounds.
“We talked a little bit about X’s and O’s (on the way to the game), but we all knew that this wasn’t a game we were going to win with X’s and O’s,” said sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. “It was more about heart, and emotions, and being gritty on defense. And coach made that clear. I think we all knew that, at some point, you just play basketball.”
The Wolverines jumped out to a 31-11 lead in the first half, putting on a clinic while forcing the Fighting Illini into turnovers and bad looks. Michigan played with energy and focus, setting the tone with a few early fast breaks and then cementing its arrival with hot shooting.
It was enough to make you wonder which team showed up late to the arena.
Fighting for a potential bid to the NCAA Tournament, Illinois made a late push in the first half and wouldn’t go away in the second, but it wasn’t nearly enough to catch up to the Wolverines. Irvin threw down an exclamation point with under two minutes remaining, hanging on the rim after a two-handed slam. It was a moment of delight for fans, even though they didn’t have to endure much tension throughout the game.
The win was John Beilein’s 210th as head coach at Michigan, giving him the most in program history.
Yesterday, though, Beilein said he gave his team the option of not playing Thursday at all.
“I just said, ‘We’ve got two choices, and I’m with you either way,’ ” Beilein said. “ ‘We could not go, and forfeit the game — we’re not going (Wednesday) — but we’re working on getting a plane for the morning, and unless you tell me different, that will be the plan.’
“Nobody told me different.”