Derrick Walton, Jr., took a hard dribble to the right and saw his man stumble as the game clock trickled toward zero.
Five ... four... three...
The Wolverines trailed Oregon by one in the final seconds of their Sweet 16 showdown Thursday night at Sprint Center. And it was hero time for Walton, Michigan’s senior guard, who had been playing lights out for so long that when he proceeded to rise for a picture-perfect stepback jumper that rolled off his right hand oh-so-perfectly, no one — not his coach, not his teammates, and certainly not Walton — thought there was any way he could miss it.
“Derrick, really, he wanted it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I looked in his eyes, and I said ‘Okay, he’s going to get a good shot out of this.’ And he got a great shot out of it.”
“I thought it was going to go in,” Michigan junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said.
“I’ve seen him make that shot 1,000 times,” senior wingman Zak Irvin said. “From my angle, it looked good.”
The ball was on target, but a tad short. It clanged off the rim, and Walton clasped his hands together above his head, a look of disbelief on his face. Oregon had won, 69-68, and Michigan’s season — February rut, scary plane crash, Cinderella run and all — might as well have flashed before his eyes.
Walton, appropriately, held his hands there for several seconds as the Ducks, dressed in bright yellow, celebrated. The dream was over. It did not feel real.
“I got my feet under me, I lined it up ... and it rolled off my hand perfectly,” Walton said.
The Wolverines had some regrets on this night — lost the rebound (36-31) and turnover (8-5) battles, for instance — but that shot wasn’t one of them. Everybody, Beilein included, wanted the ball in the hands of Walton, the senior alpha dog who had averaged 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during Michigan’s recent 12-2 run entering the game.
“We just needed to do better throughout the game,” Beilein said. “We weren’t as sharp as we’ve been. Credit Oregon for that.”
Beilein had a point. Michigan had eight turnovers in the game, compared to 10 total in their first two tournament games. The Wolverines shot 46.7 percent from the field in the second half, compared to nearly 64 percent in the previous two contests.
But the game remained close throughout, and seventh-seeded Michigan even led by three with 1:54 left.
The third-seeded Ducks, however, quickly notched a putback off a missed free-throw and converted a driving layup to take a one-point lead.
Each team came away empty on their next possession, setting up Walton’s potential game-winner that spun just short of paydirt, setting up a difficult situation that left Beilein to console a group of players that had played so well, given so much to the program and been so selfless.
“It was the Bo Schembechler (motto) ‘The team, the team, the team’ at its finest,” Beilein said. “That’s all they cared about.”
Which explains why so many of them were there to pick up their senior leader after the game-ending miss. Several players expressed their confidence in Walton after the game, and how he’d carried them so far, and how they were so appreciative of his leadership over the course of the season, and how it almost seemed unfair it didn’t go in.
College basketball, of course, can be cruel that way.
“When I let it go, I thought it was good,” Walton said, shaking his head. “To see it fall short, the last shot of the game ... it’s tough to think of.”