March 24, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When the storybook ending pops off the rim, what do you do?
The University of Michigan men's basketball team took the long walk back to the locker room -- which had been the scene of so much joy and some very wet celebrations in recent weeks -- and one by one took a seat in the rows of chairs.
They could hear the raucous elation of the Oregon Ducks through the walls at the Sprint Center because it was so quiet in their room that you could hear water being poured into a cup.
The Wolverines starters sat in the front row, many of them with heads bowed and towels draped over them. There was plenty of emotion under those towels, which were standard issue from the NCAA and had "MARCH MADNESS" printed on them.
However, the madness was over Thursday night (March 23) for a team that captured the hearts of so many fans on its six-game postseason winning streak that brought a Big Ten Tournament championship and Sweet 16 berth.
Derrick Walton Jr. got one more chance to hit the most important shot of the game.
"I've seen him make that shot a thousand times," said Zak Irvin, his teammate and roommate for the last four years.
It was a clear three-pointer off a step-back move with two seconds remaining that hit the front of the rim, popped away and dropped into the hands of Ducks forward Jordan Bell as time expired on Michigan's wildest dreams.
"Personally," said Walton, "I thought it was as good of a shot as I had all night. That was one of the best moves for me, one of my go-to moves. I had great lift, and I shot it. It went off my hand perfectly. When I let it go, I thought it was good. I just thought it would be a great moment to put up a shot to win, and it just fell short. "
And so the Wolverines came up one point short in a 69-68 tug-of-war despite the brilliant play of their senior co-captains, Walton and Irvin.
Walton made a trio of three-pointers in four prior attempts to finish with 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
When Michigan coach John Beilein asked for his five seniors to share their thoughts after he spoke, Walton shook his head. He wasn't ready for that, ready to say good-bye just yet. Though, he noted that he would tell them all what they meant to him after the locker room closed to the media more than 30 minutes later.
"It's the tightest bunch I've been around in all my years of basketball," Walton told reporters. "Just a very selfless group. I had the joy of being a part of it and being one of the leaders. I wish we could have more games to play together because I think a couple minutes throughout the game we didn't show the type of team we were becoming and overall just thank them for allowing me to be part of such a great team."
Irvin scored 14 of his 19 points after intermission and had a team-high eight rebounds as well as three assists.
"It's been a hell of a ride," Irvin told his teammates in the locker room. "I appreciate each and every one of you. There were a lot of memories made. I wish you all nothing but the best in the future. I love you."
Rugged senior forward Mark Donnal added, "I appreciate every one of you guys. We're brothers for life."
Life itself is something these players will hold a little dearer now. Two weeks earlier, they had been on a runaway charter jet that wasn't slowing down much despite the pilot's alert call in gusting winds to hit the brakes twice. They crashed through a fence, over a ditch and a road and came to a stop before reaching a ravine at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti. They ran out the emergency door Donnal had opened and onto the right wing of the plane, leaping from that wing and running far from the plane just in case anything worse happened to it.
They were definitely shake, but showed great resilience by boarding a flight early the next morning that took them to a conference tournament game in Washington D.C., where they played about two hours after landing in practice uniforms because the real things were in the belly of that plane. And they won six games in a row, coming so close to a seventh.
"You've been through a lot, and you are better men for it," Beilein told his players in the solemn locker room.
The coach, who had held down the egress slide so everyone could exit down it from the front of the plane in the whipping wind, now stood with his arms folded in front of him. Sometimes he put his hands on his hips. He looked them in their eyes and spoke to them more about the ordeal, bonding through adversity and their accomplishments than how the season ended.
However, he began with this game.
"That obviously could've been our game," Beilein told them. "It was a great shot."
Walton nodded his head.
"Nothing can take away what you've accomplished up to this point," Beilein continued. "You did a great job. It's March 23rd, and we were still playing basketball. In 24 hours there will only be eight teams left, but we aren't going to be one of them. But you deserve to be one of them.
"When all was said, you played like one of the best, maybe the best team, we have had. There were no agendas. It was just about working hard and trying to be a better team."
Beilein touched on the "tremendous legacy" of the senior class, which included Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan, who were great teammates. He challenged the "young guys" coming back to remember what those five players meant to this team.
"He talked to us about the adversity of these past couple months," said Irvin. "It was such a tough group and so resilient. We went through a lot of things and have a lot of memories to cherish."
There were all those games when Walton put the team on his back and led them to victory, and in recent weeks Irvin had also come up big in the clutch. Forwards Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson emerged as big-time players, and guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had a way of stepping up to stem the tide when the team struggled. Swingman Duncan Robinson hit some big shots and improved so much defensively. Donnal grabbed important rebounds and scored key buckets. Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson played strong defense and began to get a feel on offense.
"You guys were really great," Beilein told his men in closing. "I've never been prouder of a group of young men. This is a real team!
"Value every minute in life going forward."
Walton was asked if, after a narrow loss with so much on the line, it was too early to absorb his coach's message. He immediately said it was not.
"It's taught me a lot about this season and a lot about this team," said Walton. "It's taught me a lot about life. Going forward, I am definitely going to implement all of this into my daily life."
As the days, weeks, months and years pass, these Wolverines will be remembered with a special reverence and respect. How it finished will become a footnote to a real profile in courage and how the human spirit can triumph when there is love.
They didn't want this season to end but have great futures ahead of them. Sometimes that can sound cliché but not in their case. They knew better.