By Zach Wagner | @zachwagner22
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — With Michigan’s NCAA tournament hopes hanging in the balance, Zak Irvin went up for a jumper to keep his team’s dream alive. Irvin’s 16-foot shot with 3.3 seconds to go in overtime became the difference in Michigan’s 72-70 victory over Northwestern that preserved its chances of reaching the NCAA field.
The eighth-seeded Wolverines (21-11) advanced to a quarterfinal where they will face No. 1 Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday afternoon with a chance to dramatically improve their NCAA chances.
Duncan Robinson, a member of the Division III national runner up at Williams College two years ago, gave the Wolverines their chance by equaling his season high of 21 points. Robinson made 6 of 10 shots, including 4 of 6 three-point attempts. The second of Robinson’s two three-point shots in overtime, with 46 seconds to go, tied the score at 70-70.
Michigan, which was without leading scorer Caris LeVert for a 17th game because of a lower left leg injury, called upon Irvin, who made a jumper over Wildcat sophomore Bryant McIntosh.
Turning towards the other end of the floor, Irvin proceeded to prance with a smile of someone that had just hit the biggest shot in his team’s season.
“It was a special moment for me,” Irvin said. “I always talk about wanting to be the man in those situations, and in that moment I knew that I had been able to do that.”
Irvin scored 19 points, 12 after halftime, with eight rebounds. Before taking his game-deciding shot, Irvin, a 42-percent shooter this season, had made just 5 of 15. But that didn’t stop Michigan coach John Beilein from calling his number with everything on the line.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Who am I going to tap for the final shot?’” Beilein said outside his team’s dressing room. “I decided I would give it to Zak, and let him figure something out.”
The 2013 Indiana Mr. Basketball at nearby Hamilton Southeastern High School did just that.
“He’s at his best when he has to go out there and make something happen quickly,” Beilein said.
Irvin’s final shot was set up by a series of game-altering moments, in regulation and overtime, that came to highlight the changes in momentum felt by both teams.
In the waning moments of regulation, Northwestern center Alex Olah grabbed Tre Demps’ missed shot and quickly hoisted the ball back up towards the rim as he was falling backwards. Olah watched from the floor, sliding backwards, as his putback attempt sent the game into overtime.
“I said I’m going to go grab the screen and put it back in and send us to overtime,” said Olah. “And it happened.”
Olah, a senior, finished what may have been his last game with the Wildcats with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Demps, who is also a senior, led Northwestern with 21 points.
In overtime, Michigan relied on Robinson, whose 14 first-half points had helped the Wolverines lead by as many as 13 points. “Duncan can plain out shoot the ball,” said Beilein. “When those kinda big shots are going down for him you just gotta let him have at it.”
Robinson, a redshirt sophomore, sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules after he spent the 2013-14 season with Williams. He was named to the Division III Final Four All-Tournament team. “It’s been a long journey from Williams College, but I’m really confident with where I’m at right now,” said Duncan. “It’s a bigger stage, that’s for sure.”
The Wildcats had one last chance when a video review showed that Michigan junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. stepped out of bounds along the left baseline in the Wolverine backcourt with 0.6 seconds to go. Wildcat junior Nathan Taphorn missed a three-point shot from the left side, bent at the waist and held his head in disappointment.
“I thought we deserved to win the game,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “But sometimes other things come into factor. And you have to live with it when you try to climb the mountain, so it’s for another day.”
Collins spoke with a raspy voice. He was asked to elaborate on his comment.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. You guys saw the end of regulation. Looked like a lot of steps on the end line with Duncan Robinson, but I don’t know. You guys watched the game. Make your own determination.”
Collins was asked why there had been overtime games with Michigan. “I think we’re two good teams,” he said, “two teams that deserve to win the game, honestly. And I guess our name isn’t big enough yet, and that’s something that we have to do for ourselves. We don’t have the brand name yet, and that’s something that we’re going to work on.
“We’re fighting like crazy,” Collins went on. “It’s a battle. I can’t even talk. It’s a battle, fighting so hard. That’s what I’m fighting and that’s what I’m going to keep fighting.”
Collins then called for the Big Ten to help them in their post season chase, just as they would any team in the conference.
When Collins was asked if he thought Northwestern (20-12) would appear in a post-season game, he smiled. “I hope the league will fight for us the way they fight for other teams,” he said.
Beilein, sporting an emotionally-drained expression, stood outside the locker room awaiting the media. He soon spotted the media coming and smiled.
What came out of his mouth next was exactly what many had been thinking as soon as the final horn ended a dramatic overtime.
“Now wasn’t that just a heck of a basketball game?”