Kornacki: Against All Odds, Wolverines Prevail in D.C.
Coach John Beilein embraces tournament MVP Derrick Walton Jr.
March 12, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Against all odds.

Even the way the University of Michigan men's basketball team won the Big Ten Tournament championship game fit that description.

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It was a blowout in the end -- a 71-56 thrashing of second-seeded Wisconsin -- and who could have seen that coming from a team becoming only the second in 20 years of tournament history to win four games in four days.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dribbled around the court during the final seconds Sunday afternoon (March 12) in pure glee. D.J. Wilson raised both arms up from his hips with gusto, shouting and encouraging the numerous Michigan fans at the Verizon Center to cheer louder, and they did.

Four days earlier, the Wolverines had survived a plane accident, their charter aircraft sliding off the end of the runway after an aborted takeoff in high winds. And now the life they came to cherish even more as a result couldn't have been any sweeter.

"We felt blessed with everything we'd been through this past week to get to the position we are in right now," said Wilson, who had 17 points and six rebounds. "By winning the Big Ten Tournament, we're just extremely blessed. I'm a big believer in my faith, and God had a plan."

Derrick Walton Jr., voted the tournament's most outstanding player, hit the court on one knee to give thanks and was quickly engulfed by his loving teammates.

"I just wanted to relish the moment," said Walton, who had a game-high 22 points and seven assists along with six rebounds. "It was real now and something that you will have forever. I was embracing something that I'd worked so hard to get, and to have it happen is great.

"I'd dreamed it, and now I saw it happen. It had finally happened, and it was the greatest feeling ever."

Walton had told Wolverines coach John Beilein -- while Beilein drove the two of them to the airport for the trip to the final regular-season game at Nebraska -- that this team was going to win the Big Ten Tournament the next weekend. He could feel that the Wolverines were so close to clicking into high gear, and he was right.

Now, it was time to celebrate.

Fireworks exploded, multi-colored streamers rained down from the rafters, and a cheerleader raced across the court with a maize flag with a blue block M, waving it in triumph.

Fans chanted: "It's GREAT to be A MICHIGAN WOLVERINE!"

This is what it feels like when a team that bucks the odds comes out on top.

'It was a great feeling just knowing all the hard work we put in throughout the whole season," said Zak Irvin, who had 15 points, a team-high seven rebounds and five assists. "Just to be able to experience that with all your brothers, after all the adversity we've been through, to finally say we won a Big Ten championship, that's a huge accomplishment. It's a memory that we'll always remember."

Walton added: "God is good. That's all I can really say. A lot of things we can't explain that happen, happen. We just bonded together as family. To finally do this, do something that hasn't been done in so long, it's something that will stick with you for a really long time. The friendships and bonds we have with this team, it's something that's everlasting."

He hugged his mother, Angela, during the on-court celebration.

"I really wanted to enjoy this with my mom," said Walton.

Parents, family and friends found poured onto the court to share Michigan's first Big Ten Tournament championship. The Wolverines did win the first conference tournament in 1998 but had to vacate it due to NCAA sanctions.

Seniors with trophy
Michigan seniors (from left) Derrick Walton Jr., Sean Lonergan, Zak Irvin, Andrew Dakich and Mark Donnal

These unlikely champions jumped off airplane wings and ran from a crashed charter flight Wednesday (March 8), and now the eighth-seeded Wolverines (24-11) had beaten three of the top four seeds, also taking down No. 1 Purdue and No. 4 Minnesota, in addition to Illinois.

This was the 20th Big Ten tourney, and the only previous team to win four games for the championship was Iowa in 2001.

Winning four games in four days of a competitive tournament is an extremely rare occurrence. The ACC expanded and added a play-in game in 1992, providing the possibility for a team to win four games, and on Saturday night (March 11) Duke became the first ACC team to win four games in four days and claim the title.

Beilein noted that the plane mishap made it five stressful days in a row.

"It wasn't four games in four days," Beilein told me. "It was -- now talk about sudden change, Bo Schembechler's sudden change -- we had some sudden change."

And once the players got through the mental challenges of the plane mishap -- some of them wondered aloud about getting on the plane for Washington, D.C. -- Beilein found a way to reach them on the basketball court.

"I try to have them visualize the success," he continued. "In February and March, you coach kids' hearts just as much as you do X's and O's. I just felt we had to get a way to get to their hearts because when you really love something or you want something really, really badly, you will extend more energy. We needed more energy today, and we found it.

He'd told his players before the four-game tournament: "Somebody's going to do it. Why not us?"

He said they bought into that in a big way, but he stressed that his team also got closer every step of the way since that Feb. 4 loss to Ohio State in Ann Arbor.

"This team has bonded not just because of the events last Wednesday but in the last month," Beilein added. "We lost a home game to Ohio State. Our kids really felt bad about that. The coaches felt bad about that. After that, we gained an edge from that loss that has propelled us to this point."

What they accomplished was hard to believe.

So, how were the Wolverines able to come through all of this and blow away the Badgers, who had just totally destroyed Northwestern the day before? Their legs had to feel like lead.

"I think it was our mental toughness," said Irvin. "There was so much adversity we had to go through in the whole season and definitely throughout this tournament to do this, and do something special. It's something so special that we will never forget it."

How did he feel physically after playing 156 of 165 minutes in four games, one of which went overtime?

"Exhausted," said Irvin. "I can't wait to rest."

Did he ride adrenaline to make it through?

"Yeah," said Irvin, "I definitely did. We needed 40 minutes to win this, and the second half was just about sticking together and pushing through."

Walton added: "It was about being tough, man, and not letting anything alter your focus, and that's what we did. We were locked in to the finish."

Wolverines strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson pointed to being mentally prepared:

"I think it was our leadership -- and Coach Beilein's leadership has always been phenomenal -- but our guys made a decision: 'This is our time.' They just had determined minds that we were going to do this.

"This is my eighth season with Coach Beilein, and his teams grow through adversity. We get better with adversity. His positive outlook whenever we lose a game, the way he turns it into a positive by pointing to what we need to get better at. And so this team takes adversity and responds with a positive outcome."

They went from careening down a runway with their fates completely out of their hands to, four days later, hoisting the Big Ten Tournament trophy and climbing their way up the brackets to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a Friday (March 17) date with No. 10 seed Oklahoma State in Indianapolis.

"When the event first happened," said Walton, "basketball was the last thing on my mind. I talked to Zak. We got home. I just said, 'Basketball is a small spectrum in life.' What we just experienced, I just let him know what really could have happened. But once we got here, I just let that all be what it was. I really focused in and bought into what Coach was talking about, the rest of our coaches. They work so hard with the scouting report and everything. We just wanted to pay them back by doing special things like this."

Irvin added: "Like Derrick said, we had a conversation after everything went down. Once we landed in D.C., we agreed that why can't this be the greatest story ever told. Everybody had that mentality: Why not us? When we were tired and fatigued, whatever it might be, that was the extra push we needed to win this championship."

While on the celebration stage, microphone in hand, Beilein was overcome with emotion when pointing out that "20 years from now" his players would tell "their sons and daughters" of this day.

This was all so special.

Beilein stood in the front of the team charter headed back to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Sunday night. He smiled and recalled the plane crash: "It was a 400-yard toboggan ride, but a toboggan ride ends. We didn't know how this one would end."

It was, come to think of it, a five-day toboggan ride. It ended with smiles they couldn't wipe off their faces, having survived a catastrophe and claimed a big silver trophy.

Against all odds.

Champions! Michigan Grabs Big Ten Tournament Title

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