By Steve Kornacki
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- This game came down to eight free throws by the Wolverines in the final 29 seconds, and you could feel the tension every time Duncan Robinson, D.J. Wilson and Derrick Walton Jr. toed the line.
Teammates pulled them aside or University of Michigan head coach John Beilein would cup his hands and shout encouragement while standing at the end of the bench. He instructed one of those shooters to think of his mother, and it had a calming effect.
It's lonely standing there, usually with the rest of your teammates back at midcourt, readying to play defense.
It's you and the Oklahoma State players waiting for the rebound they hope comes when you miss.
It's nerve wracking.
Michigan needed every one of the six free throws it made in the last 29 seconds, which seemed like 29 minutes at times. It came away with a 92-91 win in Friday afternoon's (March 17) NCAA Tournament opener because Wilson swished two free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining to seal the deal.
The Cowboys broke down court after Wilson made the second shot, and Jawun Evans hit a three-point shot that swished as the game ended.
"We had to make shots," Beilein told his players in the postgame locker room. "We made shots! We made just enough to get the win."
So, one point ended up being the difference, and No. 7 seed Michigan (25-11) is headed to perhaps the most anticipated second-round game of the tourney. It will face No. 2 seed Louisville on Sunday (March 19) in a rematch between the schools that faced off in the 2013 national championship game.
The Cardinals (25-8) held off Jacksonville State to advance, and the Wolverines moved on thanks to the offense of Walton (26 points, 11 assists), Wilson (19 points), Zak Irvin (16 points) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (16 points).
Irvin drained a clutch pull-up jumper near the free throw line, and Walton drove the lane to hit a running one-hander to give the Michigan a seven-point lead with 54 ticks left on the clock.
The Cowboys were going to have to foul even after they got a layup to cut the lead to four. However, they needed to foul Michigan three times to get into the bonus situation that would send the Wolverines to the free throw line.
That meant Beilein was going to have to use three different in-bounds plays in the Oklahoma State backcourt just to get to that point. Those three plays took 16 seconds off the clock, and Michigan was flawless in-bounding the ball and avoiding what could've been a fatal turnover.
"For us to execute our press offense to get it in bounds is very difficult," said Beilein. "You only have so many in-bounds plays. That was close, and we got it done."
That brought it down to eight shots in 29 seconds.
Robinson both opened and closed the door on the Cowboys.
He missed the first of those eight free throws to cancel the second shot in a one-and-one situation, but Evans didn't capitalize on the opportunity. He missed a layup, and Robinson boxed out to get the critical rebound.
Davon Dillard immediately fouled Robinson, who was going to get a chance at redemption, as well as another bout with nerves.
Beilein shouted to him before he set up to shoot.
"He was instilling some confidence in me," said Robinson, who is from New Castle, New Hampshire. "He told me to think about my mother (Elisabeth), which was a nice message because my mother is a super woman in my eyes. She travels everywhere to every single game and sacrifices so much. To have him remind me of her in that moment was a calming presence."
Robinson swished both shots.
Michigan was up, 88-81, with only 23 seconds remaining, and many in the large contingent of Wolverines fans who helped pack Bankers Life Fieldhouse took deep breaths and smiled. This was looking good.
However, it took Jeffrey Carroll only five seconds to drain a long three-point shot. The Cowboys weren't dead yet.
Carroll immediately fouled Robinson after he got the in-bounds pass, and Robinson looked confident before this one-and-one opportunity, having just nailed a pair from the line. But his shot with 17 seconds left swirled out, and Dillard scored a bucket to cut the lead to two points with 10 seconds remaining.
Walton got this in-bounds pass and was fouled by Leyton Hammonds before a full second could even tick away. However, the Wolverines were now in the double-bonus situation, and two free throws would be awarded for every Cowboys foul beginning with this one.
The star of the game walked in a circle near midcourt and nobody approached him. He was in a zone. Walton ran matters through his mind before stopping to visualize making the first shot. He extended his right hand high, following through with a motion that resembled a swan bending forward.
Walton has made 28-of-30 free throws in five postseason games. He's the closest thing to money in the bank at the line.
Still, the four-point lead was down to two points when Evans scored on a layup with four seconds remaining.
You knew what was coming next. It was only a matter of which Wolverine got fouled. It was Wilson, who was grabbed by Dillard, who fouled out.
Wilson heard Beilein's voice:
"Win the game! Win the game!"
Walton pulled Wilson in tight near the top of the key before telling him: "You got this! You got this!"
It was a reminder from the senior co-captain of what Wilson had done in hitting all four free throws taken previously in the game.
"I was confident and really didn't feel any pressure," said Wilson. "I just knocked them down."
This was the first lose-and-go-home game this Michigan team has played.
The Wolverines had just won four Big Ten Tournament games in four days to earn a championship, but they pretty much knew they were going to the dance.
What they hadn't encountered before was this kind of pressure.
"That's the kind of win you really love," Walton said. "You survive and just do enough to hang on. Those are the best ones, when you hang on, and the team makes plays. Those are the best ones."
Walton scored 19 points in the second half and was the best player on the court in this game.
And they all thrived and survived under pressure.
"You gain important experience from this because nothing can prepare you for the end of this game and what it was like," Robinson told me. "There is no practice simulation for that. For us to get that win was huge, and we've been winning close games lately, which is really good for us."
Wilson said the end of the game wouldn't have had this kind of result before the team -- which has won six straight and 11 of the last 13 -- found its way.
"We gained a lot from this game," said Irvin. "We practice this -- pressure free throws late, with the music going -- and I'm just proud of how we were able to hit those free throws. D.J. knocked down two huge free throws to ice the game."
They had the player who wouldn't let them lose. They didn't turn the ball over despite so many chances on all of those in-bounds passes. They played smart. They played with poise. They made just enough free throws.
Beilein smiled and concluded: "Those are all the things that I think, hopefully, will come to help us on the road ahead."