How Michigan basketball, from midseason struggles to a plane crash, finished as Big Ten champions

Wolverines won 4 games in 4 days to win Big Ten Tournament title

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Michigan basketball's fall from grace never seemed more real than on the night of Feb. 4.

The Wolverines were hosting hated rival Ohio State at the Crisler Center with their season seemingly on the line. They were sitting at 14-8 overall with very few good wins and a paltry 4-5 record in the conference, so a home date with struggling Ohio State seemed like the perfect remedy.

But things only went from bad to worse. As if playing against a rival with NCAA Tournament hopes on the line wasn't enough motivation, Michigan couldn't even turn up the intensity when OSU role player Micah Potter shushed the Crisler crowd with his team down eight points.

There was no energy. No passion. By the end of the night, Ohio State rode 16 offensive rebounds to the upset win in Ann Arbor and dropped Michigan to 14-9. The Wolverines' NCAA Tournament hopes looked to be dead.

Spoiler: They weren't.

Three days later, the program, less than five years removed from national championship and Elite 8 appearances, rediscovered a glimmer of its old magic, and it came at the expense of its other conference rival.

Michigan State visited Ann Arbor having already beaten Michigan in East Lansing the previous week. But even though only eight days separated the two meetings, the Spartans saw a completely different Michigan team.

The Wolverines came out firing on all cylinders, jumping out to a 9-2 lead and stretching that lead to 39-24 at the five-minute mark of the first half. That's when the first real sign of change exploded from the mouth of Michigan's soft-spoken power forward.

With about 4:30 left until halftime and Michigan already leading by 15, D.J. Wilson caught a pass down low from Derrick Walton, rose up and put Kenny Goins on a poster. He threw it down with one hand as Goins realized a moment too late that his best option was to evacuate the post as fast as possible.

After the dunk, Wilson let loose, flexing, screaming and staring down Goins. He got a much-deserved technical foul, but those two points were meaningless in a game that Michigan won by 29. That moment injected passion into a team that looked passionless. It lit a fire under a team without a spark.

It's been over a month since that day, and the Wolverines haven't played a bad game since. They went into Assembly Hall that weekend and picked up their first road win in a place Michigan hadn't won since 2009. They picked up two more road wins against pesky Rutgers and Nebraska foes, and sent the Big Ten's top two teams -- Purdue and Wisconsin -- home from Ann Arbor with wire-to-wire losses.

When the regular season came to a close, Michigan had done enough to satisfy the NCAA Tournament requirements. It had reached the landmark 20 wins, finished with a winning record in the Big Ten and taken care of business away from home.

But there was another gear on Michigan's dashboard, and the Wolverines shifted into that gear after a true life-or-death experience.

As the team prepared to leave for Washington, D.C., Wednesday ahead of the Big Ten Tournament, a severe wind storm forced its plane to abort takeoff at the very last moment. The plane reportedly skidded off the runway, crashed through fences and came to rest on top of a ditch. Players said the last thing on their minds was basketball as they exited the plane and ran to safety.

Derrick Walton left with stitches, and others left with bumps and bruises, but the entire team left with a new perspective on life.

When John Beilein gave his players the option to forfeit the Big Ten Tournament after the accident, his players said they still wanted to make the trip. The following morning, they arrived at the Verizon Center just 90 minutes before tipoff.

Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois volunteered to switch game times, but the Wolverines declined. After everything they had been through, they just wanted to get back on the court.

Once they did, it was obvious that next gear had been unlocked.

Michigan's first opponent, Illinois, was not only playing for its NCAA Tournament dreams, but also for its head coach's job. But unlike that night in early February, it was Michigan that set the tone with passion and energy. Less than 24 hours after a plane crash, a 6 a.m. team meeting and a last-minute arrival at the arena, the Wolverines sent the desperate Illini home with a 20-point loss.

Having taken care of business in its first game, and with a matchup against No. 1 Purdue on the horizon, even the loudest critics would have forgiven Michigan for packing it in and taking a week to prepare for the Big Dance. But this team wasn't even close to done.

The next day, Michigan completed a season sweep of the best team in the Big Ten, using a late comeback to send the game into overtime and controlling the extra five minutes against Purdue. On Saturday, Michigan cruised past a Minnesota team that had won nine of its last 10 games, trailing for just nine seconds the entire game.

In the championship, No. 2 Wisconsin didn't stand a chance. The Badgers hung with Michigan in the middle stages of the game, but when it was time for somebody to step up and make championship plays, it wasn't Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ, or clutch shooter Bronson Koenig, answering the call.

It was Walton. And Wilson. And Zak Irvin. Mo Wagner. Mohammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

Players who at times seemed uninspired early in the season threw a fast-break party against the Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin Badgers to take home the conference title.

Walton to Wilson: Dunk. Wilson to Walton: Layup. The realization of what was happening hit Michigan Nation like a Mack Truck.

It was all over but the confetti.

The Big Ten Tournament had never been farther from Ann Arbor, but when the Wolverines lifted up the championship trophy for the first time in 20 years, with fans cheering and The Victors blaring in the background, it must have felt just like home.

Michigan's job is far from over. As the No. 7 seed in the Midwest region, the Wolverines face a tough matchup against offensive juggernaut Oklahoma State in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines have won nine NCAA Tournament games in the last four years, so these seniors have a high standard to live up to.

But no matter what happens in the Big Dance, Michigan has already given fans a lasting memory of the 2017 season. From a 14-9 start to a plane crash to a Big Ten championship, this Michigan team has come a long way.

Next season, they'll hang a new banner in the rafters to make sure nobody ever forgets.

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