One day prior to Michigan’s 76-74 victory against Ohio State on Tuesday, sophomore guard Trey Burke took to the podium and declared, quite emphatically, that it was Michigan vs. Ohio State, and not Burke vs. Aaron Craft.
But late in the contest, as the two teams slugged their way into overtime, there were the two point guards, dueling against each other, trying to will their respective teams to a victory.
There was Burke, opening the extra period with a 3-pointer, and there was Craft answering minutes later with a layup. There was Craft, making Burke look foolish as he stripped the ball from him with less than 30 seconds remaining. And there was Burke, determined to atone for his miscue, blocking a Craft pull-up jumper with eight seconds left in the contest.
Yes, the Wolverines edged out a two-point victory in overtime, but the score could have easily read: Burke, 3, Craft 2, as Burke’s three points were the difference in the extra stanza.
“You’re watching two of the finest point guards in America play against each other,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That was a great battle.”
Tuesday’s game started out like so many others between Ohio State and Michigan. Craft, the Buckeyes’ point guard and defensive stopper, hounded Burke, getting over screens and contesting every jump shot. Entering halftime, Craft had rendered his Wolverine counterpart ineffective. Burke didn’t record an assist during the final 16 minutes of the half and turned in a mediocre stat line of five points and two assists. He made just two of his six field-goal attempts, shooting 1-of-3 from beyond the arc.
But exiting the locker room, Michigan made the necessary adjustments for its offense to succeed.
“We tried to open the court up more and create more spacing,” Burke said. “We know that with the ball in my hands, Craft does a good job of not letting me use the screen. We tried to allow other people on the team to get pick-and-roll action.”
Added Beilein: “We tried to go other ways offensively to make sure he did not have the ball the whole time.”
And that’s exactly what Burke did. He played off the ball and allowed other players to step up and make big plays, biding his time until there were just four minutes remaining in regulation. With Michigan trailing 64-60, Burke asserted himself. He caused a Craft turnover, which led to a fastbreak dunk. On the ensuing defensive possession, he corralled a rebound and found a wide-open Nik Stauskas, the freshman guard, on the break, which gave Michigan its first lead since the opening stanza.
And after Ohio State had knotted the score at 65, Burke nailed a huge 3-pointer to give the Wolverines another lead.
Burke did miss a potential game-winning attempt at the end of regulation, but he didn’t let it affect him going into the final five minutes of the contest.
“I know that basketball is a long game, so you can’t dwell on one play or you’ll continue to mess up on the offensive or defensive end,” Burke said.
And in the end, after each had thrown their best punch at the other, Burke was the one left standing. Craft lay on floor after his game-tying attempt was blocked at the buzzer. Three overtime points were all the Wolverines needed.
Burke battled his way to the finish line, ending with 16 points, eight assists and just two turnovers — his best statistical game against the Buckeyes. Though it wasn’t Burke who ignited the second-half run by the Wolverines, Beilein knows it was his play down the stretch that clinched the game.
“He’s a warrior,” Beilein said.