On Saturday afternoon, the Michigan Wolverines and Minnesota Golden Gophers suited up in the Big Ten’s first semifinal match up from Washington D.C. Both upstart teams came into the game red hot over their last 10 games. Michigan was 8-2 over their last 10, while Minnesota was 9-1.
The Wolverines quickly jumped out on the Gophers behind some bombs from Mo Wagner. At the 12-minute television timeout, Michigan led 25-13. That lead stayed in double figures for most of the first half, and Michigan went to the locker room with a 47-36 halftime lead.
The second half saw the Gophers make their run. Minnesota used a 17-4 run in the early part of the half to tie it at 55 with 12 minutes still remaining. From there, it was back-and-forth between the two squads.
At the center of the battle were the point guards. Both were excellent in scoring and directing their teams. Ultimately, it was Derrick Walton Jr. (a career-high 29 points, nine assists, five rebounds) who got the best of Nate Mason (23 points, six rebounds, four rebounds) and Michigan defeated the Golden Gophers 84-77.
Let’s see what we learned from today’s game.
What We Learned:
1. Walton Jr. Was Brilliant.
The senior guard from Detroit almost single-handily won the game for the Wolverines.
Walton Jr. scored 14 out of the final 20 Michigan points to complete the victory for the Wolverines. He also dished out nine assists and grabbed five rebounds.
The stellar play from Walton Jr. should not be too much of a surprise. He, along with Mo Wagner, have been catalysts to the Wolverines’ 9-2 turnaround over their last 11 games.
Today, he took his play to another level.
He controlled, directed and orchestrated every aspect of Michigan’s offense today. He scored, passed, dribbled, made free throws (10-10), didn’t commit turnovers (only one). Coach John Beilein put the ball in Walton Jr’s hands and let the senior take over. It was a joy to watch.
No one over the last 10 games in the conference has been playing better than Walton. Expect it to continue tomorrow and next week.
He is exactly the type of point guard in March that other teams should be terrified to try and play against.
2. Michigan Looks Like A Team Of Destiny.
Michigan’s harrowing story from the plane incident has been well-documented, but this team’s achievement to make it to Sunday should continue to be celebrated.
I mean, Walton Jr. is playing All-American level basketball after getting multiple stitches in his leg fleeing plane wreckage. Coach Beilein had jet fuel on his face after helping people exit the plane. If there was ever a team of destiny, Michigan’s checks off all the boxes.
Still, that explanation for Michigan’s recent rise, leaves a little to be desired. The Wolverines have played great basketball since a near 30-point blow out of Michigan State on February 7th. Credit the seniors for circling the wagons after a home loss to Ohio State and commit to the defensive end and plainly state a goal of a Big Ten Tournament championship. They have been a completely different team ever since.
Given that context, it is even more impressive that a plane crash hasn’t been able to stop them from that stated goal.
3. Both Teams Are Dangerous Next Week.
Somewhat lost in Michigan’s victory today is that Minnesota is still dangerous next week in the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Gophers are playing without one of their key pieces, Akeem Springs (9.5 points per game, 38% from distance), but showed heart, grit and toughness in today’s game.
Minnesota’s defense, inside play, athleticism and offensive orchestration from Nate Mason make them a dangerous 5-6 seed.
Michigan’s shooting, point guard play, driving ability and better play on the defensive end will also make an interesting potential second round match up against a 2 or 3-seed. Hard to say where Michigan is seeded right now, but a 6-seed seems to be in play with a victory tomorrow.
These teams have the build of squads that can compete in March. I wouldn’t want to run into either of them next weekend.
Michigan jumped out to an early double-digit advantage on the Golden Gophers, but was forced to fight off a gritty second half challenge to defeat Minnesota 84-77. Michigan advances on to Sunday’s championship game. They will play the winner of Northwestern/Wisconsin.
Minnesota never stopped battling and had a nice game from point guard Nate Mason. The Golden Gophers now await their NCAA Tournament seed and match up. Reasonable expectations should be for the Gophers to somewhere between a 5-7 seed.