Big Ten Tournament

Michigan finishes off remarkable run with Big Ten Tournament title game win over Wisconsin

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USA TODAY

Michigan finishes off remarkable run with Big Ten Tournament title game win over Wisconsin

WASHINGTON — What an incredible run for the Michigan Wolverines.

Wednesday afternoon in Ann Arbor, the team plane faced high winds that forced an aborted takeoff and the plane to slide off the runway. The next morning, Michigan finally got to D.C., and all it did after arriving was win.

Sunday at the Verizon Center, the Wolverines capped a tremendous four days of basketball with their fourth win, beating the Wisconsin Badgers 71-56 in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.

The win gave Michigan its first championship in the event since the inaugural edition back in 1998 as well as an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. At No. 8, the Wolverines became the lowest seed to ever win the tournament.

Derrick Walton Jr., who has looked like one of the best players in the country this week in Washington, starred once more with 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He also made four 3-pointers and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the 3-point line. Zak Irvin also had a terrific game with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Michigan's offense has been terrific much of this tournament and was again Sunday, the Wolverines shooting 56.3 percent on the game and better than 50 percent in both halves.

And how about the Michigan defense, which after a mighty entertaining if low-scoring first half during which Wisconsin shot 53.8 percent from the field held the Badgers to 26.7-percent shooting after halftime. Wisconsin went the first eight minutes of the second half without a basket.

The teams started hot from the field, making for an entertaining opening half. Michigan hit 12 of its first 19 shots, Wisconsin nine of its first 17. The teams played real tight until Walton created some separation with back-to-back triples — his third and fourth of the game — to make it a 10-point game with about five and a half minutes until halftime. But the Badgers rattled off seven straight from there and closed the half on a 12-3 run, capped by Bronson Koenig's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to polish off a mighty entertaining half of hoops.

Michigan shot 59.1 percent from the field, with Wisconsin not far off at 53.8 percent. The teams combined to make 11 first-half 3s, the Wolverines splashing home seven of them. Michigan led in the points off turnovers department with 11, while the Badgers have five second-chance points to the Wolverines' none. Koenig was the game's leading scorer after a half with 13 points, hitting three 3s. Walton had 12 points and four 3s.

Michigan opened the second half on an 11-2 run, with Irvin converting a three-point play to again give the Wolverines a 10-point lead. Wisconsin, after its hot-shooting first half, went the first eight minutes out of halftime without a made basket before Ethan Happ laid one in. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stretched the Michigan lead briefly to 11 before a 7-2 spurt from Wisconsin had the Badgers within six with six minutes to play. But Irvin answered that run with a shot-clock beating triple to stretch the Wolverines' advantage back out to a more comfortable nine.

After Happ got two of those points back, Duncan Robinson and Zak Showalter traded triples to keep the margin at seven with three and a half minutes to play. Michigan kept answering, though, every time Wisconsin got some points, most emphatically with press-breaking, fast-break dunks from Abdur-Rahkman and D.J. Wilson. And a fast-break layup from Walton gave the Wolverines a 13-point lead with about a minute to play, allowing them to hang on for a remarkable win.

For Michigan to do what it did after enduring the emotionally and mentally exhausting events of Wednesday afternoon is simply incredible. Certainly the Wolverines' hot streak dates back long before than, as they had a fabulous finish to the regular season and entered this tournament as one of the league's hottest teams. This team, now with a Big Ten championship in hand, will be one no one wants to see in next week's NCAA tournament.

Wisconsin also did impressive things in the nation's capital, reestablishing itself as a squad to be reckoned with in March. After a stumble down the stretch of the regular season, the Badgers won three straight games by double figures and looked far more like the preseason favorites everyone pegged them as months ago.

Big Ten Tournament Day 5 preview: Wisconsin and Michigan in the championship game

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USA TODAY

Big Ten Tournament Day 5 preview: Wisconsin and Michigan in the championship game

WASHINGTON — The Big Ten Tournament concludes Sunday in D.C. Here's a look at the championship game.

No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Michigan

2 p.m. CT, CBS

What a championship bout we have in the nation's capital. Michigan is the feel-good story of the week after going through that aborted-takeoff nightmare on Wednesday and then winning three games in three days and doing so in convincing fashion. Wisconsin, meanwhile, seems to have suddenly realized its full potential and grabbed impressive back-to-back wins, all the while looking like the preseason favorites they were projected to be.

The Wolverines are as hot as can be right now, winners of three straight here in Washington, four straight dating back to the regular-season finale and nine of 11 overall. After clubbing Illinois on Thursday, Michigan has rattled off wins against regular-season champ Purdue and equally hot Minnesota to advance to the title game. But it's how the Wolverines are playing that should worry not just the Badgers but any team that has to face the maize and blue in next week's NCAA tournament.

Derrick Walton Jr. is a playing as good as anyone in the country right now and making it look like had the season lasted a couple more weeks he might've challenged Caleb Swanigan for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. In Saturday's win over Minnesota, Walton was electric. He scored 29 points, handed out nine assists, grabbed five rebounds, hit three 3-pointers and went a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. He's been a major part of a dominating Michigan fast break, with the defense causing 40 turnovers in three Big Ten Tournament games.

The Badgers, meanwhile, have finally turned things on at the perfect time after an ugly stretch of basketball near the end of the regular season that featured five losses in six games. Wisconsin blew out Minnesota by 17 points in the regular season finale and has since beat Indiana by 10 and blitzed Northwestern by 28. The offense has returned for a Badger team that was struggling to get consistent scoring from its stars. While Bronson Koenig finished with just eight points on 3-for-12 shooting Saturday, he got the Wisconsin rout started with the first five points in that game. Nigel Hayes had 18 against the Cats, Ethan Happ had 16 and Zak Showalter had 10. It was an all-around mauling, as the Badgers shot better than 50 percent after halftime and knocked down 12 triples in the game. That's a day after hitting 10 3-pointers in the win over Indiana.

Defense, though, is Wisconsin's annual strong suit, and these two games in D.C. have been no different. Indiana nearly hit the century mark on Thursday against Iowa but was held to just 60 points against the Badgers. And after Northwestern scored a combined 155 points in Big Ten Tournament wins over Rutgers and Maryland, it mustered just 48 on ice-cold shooting against that Wisconsin defense. The Badgers have been the top defensive team in the league all season long, so if there's any team that can cool off the Wolverines — and maybe there isn't — it's these guys.

Northwestern steamrolled out of Big Ten Tournament, but first-ever NCAA tournament still to come

Northwestern steamrolled out of Big Ten Tournament, but first-ever NCAA tournament still to come

WASHINGTON — You'll have to forgive Northwestern for not being all smiles 24 hours prior to the announcement of what will be the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

The Wildcats were steamrolled Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament, hit by a Wisconsin Badger freight train that suffocated them on defense and scorched them on offense. Northwestern trailed by 17 at halftime. It trailed by as many as 33 in the second half. Wisconsin limited Northwestern to 21 points and 25.9-percent shooting in the first half. The Badgers shot 53.8 percent after halftime and splashed home 12 3-pointers on the afternoon.

It was a destruction in every sense.

"They had it going," Northwestern point guard Bryant McIntosh said. "They were hitting shots. I thought especially in the second half, when we were trying to make a push, we could never close the gap. Trying to expend that much energy after playing a couple games in a row in the past couple days is tough. They're a really good team. You can't dig that big of a hole in order to try to expend that much energy trying to get back into the game if you're wanting to win at this level."

But don't fret for these Cats, who were in the conference-tournament semifinals for the first time ever. And then there's what comes Sunday, another "first time ever," as Northwestern will be announced as part of the NCAA tournament field.

The Cats have a Selection Sunday watch party planned, and Evanston will be euphoric to see this drought snapped. The Chicagoland area might not light up like it did back in early November, when the Cubs snapped their 108-year World Series drought, but this will be a big f'in deal, to paraphrase our former vice president.

"If that happens tomorrow night, I think there will be a lot of happy people, which makes me happy," head coach Chris Collins said. "I love Northwestern. I love the people, the community, the fans. Everybody has really embraced us, embraced this team. I know it's a long time coming for a lot of people that followed the program for a lot of years. Hopefully there will be a lot of joy.

"I'll be most happy for the players, though. Those are the guys that have earned this right. They're the ones that have gone out there and performed night in and night out, losing key guys throughout the year, (Dererk) Pardon, (Scottie) Lindsey, for extended periods of time. Just finding a way to win, be effective in this league, get to the semifinals of the conference tournament. It will make me happy to see a lot of smiles and hopefully excitement on people's faces.

"For our guys, a lot of the guys came here because they wanted to be a part of 'the first.' Not just the first tournament, but a first of a lot of milestones that this team has been able to accomplish, which they deserve. They've been a great group to coach. I'm excited to continue the journey. I hope we can keep playing for a while, because this has been a really fun team to coach."

So now the attention turns to what Northwestern can do in the Big Dance. The Cats impressed in their two wins over Rutgers and Maryland, shooting 60 percent and 55.3 percent in those two games. By beating Maryland on Friday night, Northwestern showed it's arrived as a winning program in this conference.

Saturday wasn't quite as impressive — unless you're talking about the Badgers, of course — with the Northwestern offense struggling mightily and the defense getting bombed out by a Wisconsin team playing like it was expected to when it was pegged as the conference favorite during the preseason.

A Jekyll-and-Hyde showing might not provide a lot of material for predicting how this team will do in its first foray into the Madness of March, but the team is excited for what it was able to accomplish in D.C. Beating Maryland on Friday night, Northwestern grabbed a win over a tournament team. All in all, it's been a valuable learning experience for the Cats.

"The last two games are against teams that are probably going to be in the tournament," guard Scottie Lindsey said. "They've been there before, they have experience. Those are tournament-like games, we feel like. So just using those, knowing what the atmosphere will be like and learning from the mistakes we made in these games. And hopefully we won't make those mistakes if we're selected for the tournament."

"After this one, we'll definitely be fired up," forward Vic Law said. "Wherever we're playing, whatever tournament we're in — hopefully it's NCAA — we'll be fired up. Definitely something that we need to bounce back from."

Collins isn't sweating his team's Saturday performance. He thinks his team is still playing well, and certainly the first two games in D.C. showed that.

So next week, when the Cats are doing what they've never done before, Collins expects his team to keep racking up those firsts.

"I think we're going to be fine," Collins said. "We're going to be fine. We got beat today. I think sometimes psychologically we talk too much about all that kind of stuff. We had two great wins. We got beat today by a really good team. We get rested up. We dust ourselves off.

"Nothing's guaranteed. Hopefully tomorrow night, whenever that show is, we see our name called, and we figure out and start preparing for who we're going to play. But we're going to be fine. We got character in our locker room. We're going to be ready. We'll get rested, get prepared. We'll try to play our best next Thursday or Friday, if we get that chance."