Tim Hardaway Jr. seemingly secures the Michigan basketball team's NCAA tournament bid with big game against Illinois
Darrell Hoemann | for AnnArbor.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ice packs taped to both knees, Tim Hardaway Jr. crept along the hallway at a pace that bore no resemblance to the one he maintained minutes earlier on the basketball court.
At times, he couldn’t figure out which leg to favor. He'd hobble on one for a few strides, then switch to the other. Then back again.
“Both of them hurt, actually,” he said.
Once he reached the Michigan locker room, he forgot about the pain. Teammates offered high-fives and congratulations to the freshman who had just saved the season.
No one knows for certain what the Michigan basketball team’s NCAA tournament fate would have been had they squandered Friday’s game against Illinois in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
But the Wolverines probably are -- and rightly so -- off the bubble following a 60-55 come-from-behind victory that exemplified the topsy-turvy season that should now conclude in the NCAA tournament.
Hardaway willed them there.
As he’s done so many times over the past few months, he took over the game when it mattered most. Shrugged off a 4-for-11 shooting performance in the first half, in which the Illini bullied the Wolverines. Dragged the team back from an 11-point second-half deficit. Drilled a deep 3-point shot with 1:42 remaining that gave Michigan its first lead since seven minutes remained in the first half.
Reveled in another second-half tour de force.
Became the leader of this upstart team.
Not that there was much doubt before, but the three -- along with two foul shots in the final seconds that iced the win -- showed this is Hardaway's team now.
“Lately, you know what? When we have needed him in the second half, he’s really stepped up, and that’s a sign of a great player,” teammate Zack Novak said. “It was another one of those performances where he willed us to victory. That’s big for a kid who is 18 years old.”
Two years ago as a freshman, Novak played a similar role for an NCAA-bound Michigan team. He was a freshman leader who hit some big shots along the way for a team that needed that complementary type of player.
Hardaway is better than that.
“I see a lot of similarities,” Novak said, before conceding, “he’s a lot better than I was then -- and am now. He’s made big play after big play for us.”
Sixteen points Friday. Ten in the second half. A week ago, Michigan State held Hardaway scoreless in the first half of what was then the must-win, biggest game of the year. He surged for 20 in the second half.
He’s been Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors three straight times while carrying the Wolverines to wins in six of their final eight regular-season games. None of them were bigger than the one Friday. With his father, Tim Hardaway Sr., broadcasting the game, he delivered the biggest win of the season at the biggest possible time.
Despite the first-half struggles, Hardaway Jr. knew the 3-pointer was good as soon as it left his hands.
“Darius did a great job drawing the defense down,” he said. “I just made sure I knocked it down for the team. No hesitation.”
Because of that resolve, Michigan will play on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament for the first time in seven years.
As for Hardaway's availability for the third game of the year against Ohio State (1:40 p.m., CBS), the knee soreness may look daunting.
But he assured everybody that he’ll be fine by Saturday’s 1:40 p.m. start. If there’s one thing anybody has learned about Hardaway Jr., it’s that just when it looks like he’s enduring a painful bout, he comes roaring right back.