Trey Burke's legs were failing him. He'd just missed a jumper, and on the ensuing Michigan State fast break he couldn't get back to close out on Gary Harris—while Harris missed the open three, Michigan's discombobulated defense couldn't keep Derrick Nix from hitting the putback.
The basket cut the Wolverine lead to four with just over six minutes to play, and the only Wolverine to consistently produce offensively appeared to be running on fumes.
On the very next possession, Burke found a way past MSU's Keith Appling for another layup. He'd score six more points to close out the game, and of course came up with two steals to seal a classic nailbiter against Michigan's chief basketball rival. The only Wolverine with more than four made field goals, Burke ground his way to 21 points on 8/17 shooting with eight assists, two turnovers, and five(!) steals. As if that wasn't enough, he held Appling to nine points on nine shots.
The lasting images of this game will be Burke's pickpocketing of Appling at midcourt, subsequent breakaway dunk, his jubilant—and yes, just a bit mocking—slapping of the floor (left, Upchurch), and his final swipe of Gary Harris to end the game. For me, though, it will be him trying, and failing, to get back on Harris, only to dig into the deepest recesses of his soul and find the energy to pull out the win.
Michigan's chances to win took a huge blow just four minutes into the game, when an errant elbow from Branden Dawson caught Nik Stauskas flush above the eye, opening up a nasty cut that required 12 stitches and left the Wolverines without their best outside shooter. Not coincidentally, Michigan missed all 12 of their three-point attempts in the game. Miraculously, this didn't spell their demise.
That had much to do with Michigan's much-maligned big men. Jordan Morgan, who barely played in the first contest between these two, hounded Spartan forward Derrick Nix into six turnovers with stellar on-ball defense and several drawn charges. Mitch McGary scored 11 points off the bench (4/6 from the field) with three offensive rebounds, bringing the team much-needed energy and even hitting a couple clutch free throws down the stretch (yes, he also missed the front end of a one-and-one and had a critical late turnover, though it appeared the latter was a botched call, by no means the only one in this game).
With Stauskas absent, Caris LeVert was forced to take on a big role and came through as well as one could ask of a rail-thin freshman in a tight, physical contest. While he missed all three of his shots from downtown, he hit 4/8 two-pointers—including a pretty up-and-under at the first half buzzer to cut Michigan's halftime deficit to three—and played solid perimeter defense. Fellow freshman Glenn Robinson III chipped in eight points (4/6 field goals), and unlike the first game the Spartans couldn't take advantage of his interior defense, in large part because John Beilein did his best to play two bigs when Nix and Adreian Payne were both on the floor.
There were struggles, of course. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored just six points on 3/12 shooting and had three turnovers, looking like the scuffling Hardaway of last year. In the first half, the Spartans rebounded ten of their 20 missed shots, and the Wolverines' inability to keep them off the glass opened up the perimeter—State took advantage by hitting 5/11 first-half threes. A late five-point possession for MSU featured an and-one and two offensive rebounds, cutting a ten-point lead in half when it appeared the Wolverines could cruise to victory.
In the end, though, it was Burke's day. Even with the gas tank perilously close to empty, Burke staked his claim as the best player in the country. In doing so, he not only kept the Wolverines from going into a tailspin, but propelled them to second place in the Big Ten, with an outside—but very real—chance that next Sunday's game against Indiana will be for a share of the conference crown.
The final stat line may not be as gaudy as some of his others, but this was Trey Burke's entry into Michigan basketball lore. Slap the floor—the Wolverines aren't done defending their Big Ten title.