INDIANAPOLIS — Kameron Chatman hit the shot, and then he disappeared. He bounced on his feet twice as he watched the flight of the ball in front of his bench, and when it dropped, he made a half-turn to his right. Then he was gone, swallowed whole, falling back into the chairs as he was smothered by one Wolverine and then another and then another until he was buried so deep in joy and catharsis that he could barely breathe. An arena security guy in a black shirt looked on from arm’s length. Nobody would’ve blamed him if he thought the boy who saved Michigan needed a rescue himself.
“We just tackled him,” junior guard Andrew Dakich said. “I didn’t really care at that point. He had no idea what the hell just happened.”
He wasn’t alone. In the end, when the selection committee members decide who will play in the NCAA tournament and who won’t, they talk about who you can beat. They talk about how good and willful and resourceful a team you are. And if the people who fill the brackets were watching what happened at Bankers Life Fieldhouse early Friday afternoon, they saw it was Michigan 72, Indiana 69, and they saw the victorious team was all of those things. They saw a team run side-by-side with the Big Ten’s regular season champions. They saw a team that counterpunched every time in what was hardly a neutral-court game. They saw a team almost accidentally put its fate in the hands of a 6'8" sophomore who had played a total of 57 minutes since Jan. 1 and they saw that team nevertheless survive with glee.
They saw a team play its best when it mattered the most. They saw Kameron Chatman, who had hit seven three-pointers all year, drain the game-winner from the corner with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. Then they watched him disappear. Any doubt that Michigan belonged in the NCAA tournament probably vanished along with him. “Coach [John Belein] really tried to tell us not to focus on the NCAA tournament, to take it one game at a time,” Chatman said. “We’re trying not to move too far ahead.”
Of course, Chatman ensured Michigan likely will move ahead on Friday. The Wolverines can continue to strengthen their case in the Big Ten semifinals against Purdue on Saturday. But considered strictly as a matter of March hysteria, it was hard to imagine anything surpassing this.
In the heat of the moment, actually, it was hard to imagine anything anywhere surpassing this. Michigan and Indiana started fast and, though the pace got muddled before the captivating end, they dogged each other the rest of the way. Neither side led by more than six points at any juncture. There were 12 ties and 18 lead changes. When Hoosiers freshman big man Thomas Bryant dunked hard on the rim early in the second half, Wolverines junior forward Mark Donnal answered with a two-handed throwdown at the other end, which was immediately followed by a three-pointer from the Hoosiers’ Max Bielfeldt, and so on, sometimes breathlessly.
And it was Michigan that wilted first.
After requiring overtime to dispatch Northwestern on Wednesday, Beilein decided his team needed extra rest. So he pushed back the players’ wakeup calls on Thursday. Instead of 7:30 a.m., they got up at 8. “I thought that was a big deal,” Beilein said. When the Wolverines came up empty on five straight possessions late in the game, moving like they had sandbags strapped to their legs, running offensive sets that looked like basketball horror movie outtakes, the added snoozing didn’t appear to have helped. Indiana was up 66–61 with two and a half minutes left and the exceedingly pro-Hoosiers crowd was prepared to pop the roof off the place. Michigan was struggling to stay in it.
But Beilein was certain his team would get the buckets it needed for a bailout. During the under-four minute media timeout, he scanned gunslingers like Irvin, Walton and Robinson and tried to instill some confidence.
You’re going to hit a big shot, he told them.
“He didn’t say anything to Kam,” Robinson said.
Why would he? Why would Michigan’s coach even conceive of it? Chatman, a Portland, Ore., native, arrived in Ann Arbor as a four-star recruit for the 2014–15 season. He logged 15.2 minutes per game as a freshman but evidently regressed some in his second year on campus. He had played 10-plus minutes in just five games this year, each of which was before Christmas. He had as many DNPs (seven) as three-pointers made in 2015–16. Still, Chatman’s coaches and teammates noted how diligently he worked. How he and Walton Jr. put in the extra hours and hoisted extra shots, even though one of them barely left the bench during games. “Having my teammates believe in me, it means a lot,” Chatman said.
“He was struggling to get on the floor,” Beilein added, “but he never stopped.”
He was on the floor at the end Friday in part because of the progress coaches saw in him; after sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman fouled out with 1:01 remaining, Wolverines assistant Bacari Alexander recommended that Chatman enter the game instead of fellow sophomore Aubrey Dawkins, who would normally take that spot.
So Chatman was on the floor to see Robinson—a transfer from Division III Williams College—hit a three-pointer from the corner with 46.3 seconds left, tying the game at 69. It was the first long-range connection after 10 second-half misses for Michigan. And at the other end, an Indiana turnover eradicated the top-seeded Hoosiers’ chance to take a lead. Then, steadily, Walton Jr. brought the ball up with less than 20 seconds to go, and Chatman drifted to a corner.
Beilein read the floor, saw the spacing of his players and the Indiana defense. He wouldn’t call a timeout to choreograph the final shot. Roll with it, he thought. “We could’ve drawn something up that wouldn’t have looked that pretty,” he said. He had Walton Jr. come off a screen at the top. The junior point guard was the team’s leading scorer this year in the absence of injured senior Caris LeVert but decided not to shoot. He said he had made his mind up to do so, but he spied an Indiana defender stunting toward him out of the corner of his eye. Still, there were extenuating circumstances to make him trigger-shy, too. Walton Jr. missed all seven shots he took against Northwestern a day earlier. He missed the three he hoisted against Indiana.
Any other day, any other afternoon in which he had seen the ball go through the rim maybe three or four times, Walton Jr. takes that shot off the screen.
“Any other moment, going forward, if I get the opportunity,” he said, “you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m shooting it.”
Instead, he saw somebody in the corner. And it is important to note that he saw somebody. Because he thought the somebody was Dawkins and not Chatman. After Walton Jr. let it go, he recalled pleading for it back. He recalled thinking: Coach B is going to be absolutely furious that I didn’t shoot that.
“Luckily,” Walton said, “Kam bailed me out.”
And so March, in all its delirious splendor, descended upon Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Chatman received the pass. He hesitated and shimmied. He indeed thought about passing back to Walton Jr. But, with time about to expire, he took the shot. From the bench, with a view almost on a direct line with Chatman’s attempt, Michigan forward Ricky Doyle tracked it and thought: That’s good. It was, and before Chatman knew it, he was underneath about a dozen sweaty, screaming bodies, having just about written his team’s ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“I told myself if it did come my way, I was going be ready to shoot it,” Chatman said. “It felt good leaving my hands.”
Officials put 0.2 seconds back on the clock, which only meant Michigan got to celebrate again once it tipped away a desperation pass up the court. Chatman hopped toward midcourt after the final horn, where he was met by Abdur-Rahkman, who smiled and tapped his left arm, teasing Chatman for the ice water now flowing through his veins. Not too long after that, a different kind of water flowed profusely: Stalled by postgame interviews, Chatman returned to the locker room after the rest of the Wolverines and found them sitting in silence. Then they exploded from their folding chairs, armed with water bottles, dousing the hero of the day.
Even 20 minutes later, there were drops of water still running down the drink cooler. “He stuck with it, and he grinded more than anyone in the gym,” Dakich said of Chatman. “What an opportunity for him to do something really, really special.”
A perfect March moment now may lead to others. There was Irvin, a native of nearby Fishers, Ind., native, scoring a game-high 17 points and assisting on the game-tying three-pointer a day after hitting the game-winner himself against Northwestern. There was Walton, who made Indiana star Yogi Ferrell work for all of his 14 points, making a pass on a day when shooting wasn’t his first thought anyway. There was Chatman, who was about the last person anyone would have wanted to take that shot, saving his team. There was Michigan, period, without the services of injured seniors LeVert and Spike Albrecht, scraping its way, probably, into the field of 68.
“Those people are so good in that room and they know what they’re doing,” Beilein said of the Selection Committee. “We battled a lot of adversity during the year. People don’t understand: When you don’t know Caris is playing, and then you think he’s going to play, you can’t make the changes you want to make. We were caught several times in a bit of a funk as to what we were going to do the next game. And we had some bad losses. At the same time, as the year’s gone on, we’ve gotten better and better and better.”
At about 3:45 p.m. ET, long after the shot, long after he escaped that frenzied pile-up on the bench, Chatman walked down a hallway between LeVert and Walton Jr., on the way to the loading dock and the team bus. The sophomore forward only occasionally looked up as he scrolled through his phone.
The best text message, Chatman said, came from his mother, Lashea.
You do this, she wrote.
Kam Chatman smiled wide after he shared that. Then he continued to the bus. One day saved, it was on to the next one.