Gophers come up short in Big Ten semifinal
WASHINGTON — Seconds after his coach told Michigan players to quit bickering, Derrick Walton Jr. had his own message to deliver.
The senior point guard huddled his teammates at midcourt and told them they couldn’t let the game get away. Then Walton backed up those words by having a hand in 18 consecutive points — scoring 14 of those himself and assisting on the others– down the stretch as eighth-seeded Michigan beat Minnesota 84-77 Saturday to earn a spot in the Big Ten Tournament final against Wisconsin.
Walton finished with 29 points, nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and just one turnover and took over the game for the Wolverines (23-11), who have defeated Illinois, No. 13 Purdue and Minnesota since their plane skidded off the runway earlier in the week and delayed their arrival in D.C. They have Walton to thank for getting them to their first conference championship game 2014.
“The game presented me opportunities to make plays,” said Walton, who was 8 of 15 from the floor and made all 10 of his free throws. “I just take what the game gives me. … My job is easy: just make sure to get the ball in the right spot.”
For more than seven minutes the ball was in Walton’s hands as he navigated big German forward Moe Wagner’s foul trouble and quarterfinal star D.J. Wilson’s off day and took over.
Wagner, who made his first six shots and finished with 17 points, wasn’t surprised by Walton’s dominance. Neither was the teammate who has known him since fifth grade.
“When he gets that look in his eye, I know when he’ll get it going,” backcourt mate Zak Irvin said. “At that point, just get him the ball and he’ll take care of it.”
In a tradition adopted for each win this week, players celebrated by dousing coach John Beilein with water and jumping up and down screaming, “Hey, hey, hey!” They’d love to do it one more time Sunday.
On the court, Beilein has gotten to the point that he trusts Walton to run the show, especially in pressure spots. After Minnesota tied the score at 55, Beilein let Walton settle things down.
“When I see him talking, I just shut up and sit down,” Beilein said, “because I know he sees what’s going on out there much better.”
Walton saw Minnesota’s Nate Mason, who finished ahead of him in all-conference voting, scoring 23 points and outdueled him. The Golden Gophers (24-9) couldn’t make up for the loss of injured guard Akeem Springs or handle Walton’s surge.
“We knew he’d be a threat,” Minnesota forward Reggie Lynch said of Walton. “It’s something we have to shore up down the road, covering great point guards.”
As Walton walked down the court to shoot free throws late in the game, a fan yelled out, “That’s what a first-team all-Big Ten point guard looks like.”
“He definitely played with a chip on his shoulder,” Michigan forward Mark Donnal said. “We’ve seen it plenty of times this season where he’s just taken over games and been that go-to guy.”
Springs tore the Achilles tendon in his right ankle in Minnesota’s quarterfinal win Friday against Michigan State and is out for the season. New starter Dupree McBrayer had 14 points and played all 40 minutes along with Mason, but only two bench points showed the potential for problems in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re a totally different team now with Akeem out,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re going to have to start teaching some guys some different positions. That was a huge blow.”
Michigan: Playing far better than its seed, Michigan showed it has a ton of offensive options and can compensate if one or two players doesn’t have it. That’ll come in handy in the NCAA Tournament. “People can have bad days and miss shots, but we know somebody’s there who will carry us,” Wagner said.
Minnesota: Will have to make up for the loss of Springs moving forward, but the team knows it can count on Mason to shoulder the load.
Michigan: Looks to cap off an incredible week with a Big Ten Tournament title. Will face No. 24 Wisconsin, which beat Northwestern 76-48 in the other semifinal, in the final Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota: An NCAA Tournament bid that’s an impressive accomplishment after going 8-23 last season.