As the crowd at Verizon Center roared, D.J. Wilson tried to roar louder.
He had just thrown down a thunderous two-handed slam with less than two minutes remaining in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game, and he had every reason to let it all out.
With Wilson’s dunk, Michigan went up on Wisconsin by 11 points with just 1:32 remaining. It all but clinched the Wolverines first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 1998.
After a week that saw the team plane skid off a runway, the No. 8 seeded Wolverines run took them through four games in four days, culminating with a match-up against No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the final. And while the game was a battle befitting the stage, Michigan left no doubt that it was a deserving champion.
“At some point, it doesn’t matter whether it’s three games in three days, or four games in four days,” said sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. “It’s heart. It’s a mentality thing; it’s mostly heart. We were just out there fighting, and we probably made a lot of mistakes, but that’s not what it’s about all the time. It’s about how you respond to them. Unbelievable. I can’t even describe how proud I am of this group.”
Derrick Walton Jr. led the way with 22 points, and, in the end, the Wolverines were able to dribble out the clock, laughing and calling on the crowd to get even louder. When the buzzer sounded, the team erupted, gathering at midcourt in an emotional swarm that might have seemed impossible earlier this season.
Michigan came out fiery in Sunday’s final, jumping ahead to an 11-6 lead, but Wisconsin quickly closed the gap and set the stage for a tense back-and-forth affair.
When the Wolverines had the ball, several players showcased spurts of dominance. It was Zak Irvin in the early going, as he hit his first three shots by finishing a couple tricky layups and hitting a nifty jumper to help Michigan build a 19-13 lead. Then Walton took his turn, hitting three 3-pointers in a 1:16 span to push Michigan’s lead to 10.
For those two, having been through the entire spectrum of emotions in their four years at Michigan, it had to have been vindicating to play such a decisive role in a championship game. During trophy presentation, Irvin and Walton got to share that joy with each other.
“It’s something special to come in with a guy like that, knowing him for so long, this has been one of our goals that we’ve had once we stepped on this campus,” Irvin said. “And for us to lead this team to a Big Ten Championship, that’s a memory that Derrick and I will never forget.”
One of the most important match-ups of the game, though, was on the defensive end for Michigan. Moritz Wagner was able to neutralize one of the conference’s top players early on, allowing Ethan Happ to make just one of his first five field goal attempts while Michigan found its legs.
Happ would eventually regain his form, and at no point did Wisconsin ever seem out of it. Nigel Hayes kept them afloat at first, scoring eight quick points, and then the rest of the roster seemed to wake up, too.
Badgers guard Bronson Koenig, who missed the team’s Feb. 16 contest in Ann Arbor with an injury, was a force from the outset, scoring 13 first-half points — Including a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to trim Michigan’s lead to 33-32.
Michigan jumped out to a hot start in the second frame, scoring the half’s first six points as part of an 11-2 run.
At that point, the Wolverine faithful in the Verizon Center came alive. Up 10 near the midway point of the second half, they seemed to sense that this might be their day. And when a Duncan Robinson block with 11 minutes left led to a shot clock violation, Walton egged them on, gesturing and nodding his head in confident agreement.
The Badgers wouldn’t go away, though. They seemed to have an answer every time Michigan would go on a run.
“Wisconsin’s a great team,” Wagner said. “They make you guard for 29 seconds—31 seconds, actually—and then you’ve gotta play your own offense, and then you’re so tired because they’re all such good players. We just wanted to grind it out.”
It wasn’t until Wilson’s fast-break dunk with less than two minutes to play that the game seemed like a lock to end with a Wolverine celebration.
“I’m pretty sure everyone dreamt of this last night,” Irvin said. “It’s something so special to be able to have, especially with the crowd on our side like that. It felt like a home game.”
Michigan earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face Oklahoma State in the first round of the Midwest Regional.