Michigan's players wore practice jerseys against Illinois. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
Columnist

As the 28 members of the Michigan pep band, borrowed instruments in hand, filed down the hallway to their seats late Thursday morning, a Verizon Center usher stood and patted each one on the back as they passed.

“Really good to see you all,” he said softly.

At 11:48 a.m. the band members did what they do before every basketball game: They stood at their seats and played “Hail to the Victors.”

There weren’t very many fans in the building at that moment. Those in maize and blue stood and sung the words or just clapped along. Then a funny thing happened: A lot of people not in maize and blue stood and clapped along, too.

“None of us are playing our own instruments and most of us aren’t wearing our own clothes,” said Aaron Ginns, a junior drummer from Chevy Chase who never dreamed his trip home for the Big Ten tournament would turn out the way it did.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Michigan traveling party of 109 — players, coaches and families, cheerleaders, dance team and band members — were on board their charter plane bound for Washington. They were flying out of Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, about 15 miles from the Michigan campus.

It was windy: at Detroit Metro Airport winds averaged about 33 mph, with gusts up to 50. The plane headed down the runway, began to lift off the ground and then, suddenly, shockingly, the wheels and the plane came down — hard. The plane slid off the runway and finally stopped in a ditch.

“Thank goodness for the ditch,” Tom Wywrot, Michigan’s sports information director, said before the Wolverines played Illinois on Thursday afternoon in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. “I wasn’t sure when or if we were going to stop. It was terrifying.”

As soon as the plane stopped, the doors were opened and the slides came out. With the crew shouting instructions and Coach John Beilein playing crew member, the plane was evacuated in a couple of minutes.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be real,’ ” sophomore center Moritz Wagner said after the game. “Then I looked around and saw all the fear and it was very real. Next thing I know, I’m on the wing, jumping and then we’re all running. It was like in the movies where the plane blows up. We ran.”

He paused. “I’m still kind of speechless right now. I think we all are a little bit. These last 24 hours have been crazy.”

The performance the Wolverines put on in a 75-55 victory over Illinois left many in the arena speechless. After the crash, after leaving for Washington the next morning, they arrived at Verizon Center less than 90 minutes before the scheduled tipoff time, which was pushed back 20 minutes to 12:20 p.m. They played in their practice jerseys because their uniforms hadn’t made it to Washington.

It left Beilein with a feeling he’d never had before in 42 years as a basketball coach.

“You know, when you’re going through it you don’t have time to stop and think about things, you’re just trying to figure out, ‘Okay, we’re in a crisis, what do we do next?’ ” he said, standing in the hallway after his team had removed any lingering doubts about its NCAA tournament status. “But as I walked off the court at halftime [with a 40-29 lead] it hit me for a minute. Then, after the game, it really hit me.

“I mean, 24 hours ago Derrick Walton was lying on his belly going down a slide and look at what he did this afternoon. Look at what they all did.”

Beilein’s players said they could never remember him being so emotional after a game. “I think it just hit me how proud I was of them,” he said. “And how fortunate we all feel today.”

Walton led Michigan with 19 points, Zak Irving scored 18 and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had 17. The Wolverines scored the first basket of the game on a Wagner jumper and the Illini — playing for their NCAA tournament lives — never caught up.

“What a crazy 24 hours,” Wagner said. “This game wasn’t about X’s and O’s, it wasn’t really about basketball. It was about this,”— he touched his heart — “and about toughness.”

Once everyone was safely off the plane, they were held in the airport for three hours while investigators came in to interview them and to make sure no one was seriously hurt. “Cuts and bruises and a lot of fright,” Beilein said. “But, fortunately, that was all.”

The team went to a nearby hotel for the night while everyone else returned to their dorms or homes. The band members found friends who could loan them instruments. The cheerleaders and dance team had backup outfits. But every basketball uniform the school owns was still in the belly of the charter plane.

“I don’t know if we’ll have our uniforms tomorrow,” senior forward Mark Donnal said. He grinned. “We may have to ride this wave.”

Once the team got checked into the hotel, counselors from the school were brought in to talk to them about what they’d been through. Beilein scheduled a walk-through but when the team gathered in to the hotel ballroom, he decided against it.

“I said no, not now,” he said. “We have to deal with how we’re all feeling about this first.”

There was some talk about busing through the night, rather than get on a plane again so soon. Ultimately, the players decided to fly early in the morning.

“We’re all going to have to fly again at some point,” Wagner said. “I’ll be honest, though, I had a lot of trepidation getting on that plane. Once we were on the ground here, we all felt better. Then we could start thinking about the game.”

Walton agreed. “The hardest part was getting back on the plane,” he said. “Once we landed, I think we all took a deep breath and we could focus on playing the game.”

Wywrot went home for the night and was explaining to his 4-year-old son why he’d come back after leaving earlier that day. “There was an accident,” he said to him. “But everyone’s okay.”

Wywrot stopped. “All of a sudden, he said to me, ‘Daddy, why are you crying?’ ”

Almost no one slept, especially with a 6 o’clock wake-up call. “I don’t sleep much this time of the year anyway,” Beilein said. “Usually I’m lying awake thinking about basketball. Last night, I didn’t sleep for one minute and I didn’t think about basketball for one minute either.”

The Wolverines flew Thursday morning on the Delta plane the Detroit Pistons usually fly on. It is brand new, state of the art — which reassured everyone. Even so, most admitted they felt the moderate turbulence the plane experienced while landing.

“I think some guys might be being a little over-dramatic,” Donnal said. He smiled. “But I guess I can understand why.”

Remarkably, there was little drama in the game. Michigan was up 31-11 before Illinois cut the margin to 33-26. But the Illini never got any closer and the margin was double digits almost the entire second half.

“It was as if being on the court was a place where we felt free from everything that happened,” Wagner said. “Coach told us before the game to be grateful we were here with the chance to play and enjoy competing. I think we took all of it to heart.”

Beilein is a devout man who carries a Bible in his pocket at all times. He pulled it out while he was talking after the game and shook his head for a moment. “Trust me,” he said. “I said all my prayers of gratitude last night.”

Before he left the locker room to talk to the media, Beilein gave instructions to his coaches for the evening ahead. The team would check into its hotel — almost a day later than anticipated — and then begin to prepare to play Purdue on Friday at noon.

“Got another game to get ready for,” Beilein said. “Believe me, I’m thankful for that.”

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.