“He Cares About That”: Beating Michigan No Small Thing For Duane Washington Jr.

By Colin Hass-Hill on March 13, 2021 at 5:45 pm
Duane Washington Jr.

INDIANAPOLIS – His hair bouncing around, Duane Washington Jr. hopped over toward the sideline, looked up into the Lucas Oil Stadium stands at a section of mostly Ohio State fans that included parents of players and wives of coaches. Bouncing up and down along to the music, having just jogged over to that side of the court after hitting his ritualistic pre-game Griddy dance with his teammates on the bench, he shot his hands into the air while imploring the limited-capacity crowd to make all the noise they could muster in the cavernous building.

No, this wasn’t unique. It wasn’t new. 

This was Duane Washington Jr. being Duane Washington Jr. It was the demonstrative, ultra-emotional junior guard doing what he has done before every game this season.

“Look at the kid before every game,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “He misses our fans dearly. Look at him before every tip. The guy loves what he's doing, and that's contagious. It really is.”

E.J. Liddell added: “Any day, I feel like Duane brings the same energy. Every single time.”

What transpired on Saturday after Michigan won the tip wasn’t different either. 

Washington lit the Wolverines up just like he did the last time he played them (30 points, 12-of-18), the time before that (20 points, 6-of-14) and the time before that (17 points, 7-of-14). Just like the son of an NBA player from Grand Rapids, Michigan, always does. 

This time, in perhaps the most important game of his young career, he led the Buckeyes in points (24), rebounds (six) and assists (four) on Saturday, sending them to the Big Ten championship game by taking down his home-state school, 68-67.

“I don't think about it too much,” Washington said, “other than I am from Grand Rapids and a Michigan kid.”

He then proceeded to explain why, in fact, he does think a good deal about playing the school from that state up north.

“Everybody wanted to go to Michigan, Michigan State growing up where I'm from, at least,” Washington said. “It's just that extra little chip in the back of my head. I'm on the rivals or I'm on the dark side for the guys back home. But in Columbus, I went to the good side. All those things are jumbling through my mind. Gamers do gamer things, and players make plays. Just try to go out there and do whatever I've got to do for my team to win.”

Holtmann, noting the state that Washington comes from, doubled down on this one meaning a lot to his star in the backcourt.

“Duane feels that,” Holtmann said. “He knows what this game means to our fans. It's not football. We understand that. But Duane Washington, he cares about that, and he is as dialed in in these games more than any he plays his entire career.”

Initially, Washington’s energy-dump didn’t lead to points galore. After missing a shot from the post on the first possession, he opened things up with a layup to get Ohio State on the board in the second minute of the game then proceeded to go cold.

He came up empty on four straight shots, hit a 3 to close what was a four-point deficit to a single point midway through the first half, then missed two more shots to enter the locker room at halftime having gone 2-for-9. Washington neither got threes nor what he described as “bunnies” to fall consistently.

Back to the drawing board they went. Holtmann knew he would need more from both Washington and Liddell (five first-half points), and he told them as much in what the guard called a “motivational” talk.

Whatever he said worked just fine.

Nineteen seconds passed in the second half before Washington uncorked a triple and drilled it. Liddell struck next with a pair of free throws. Then came a Washington layup. Then two 3-pointers from Liddell. Then two triples from Washington. Then an and-one by Liddell.

For the first 10 minutes of the second half, those two went back and forth, scoring every single point by an Ohio State player while turning a one-point deficit into a five-point lead.

“Got something to go early. Hit my first one,” Washington said. “At that point, I just knew that I really want this, our guys really want this and it's now or never. Those legs started to get back under me, and we were able to finish the game.”

His fifth made triple of the night, an and-one with six minutes to go and a final layup with 3:18 on the clock to put him at 24 points on the day were a big part of a team-wide effort that proved to be – barely – enough for the fifth-seeded Buckeyes to get the better of the top-seeded Wolverines.

In Washington’s four games against Michigan as a sophomore and junior, he has averaged 22.8 points while shooting 55.5 percent on threes.

“I'm happy he's on my team, for sure,” Liddell said. “I wouldn't want to play against him at all.”

The more he plays, the more the country will learn his name and what he’s about. 

Saturday’s performance, taking down a No. 1 seed and his school's archrival, will go a long way toward making Washington a household name in college basketball. It also ensured one thing that has become quite evident: Michigan already knows far more about him than it wishes.

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