MADISON — There are desperation buzzer-beating shots, and then there are shots like the one Wisconsin guard Ben Brust hit on Saturday to tie the game at the end of regulation against No. 3 Michigan.
Down three points, the junior had just over two seconds and the full length of the court go, down three points. The Wolverines had a foul to give, so Michigan coach John Beilein instructed his players to foul. A perfect inbound pass to Brust left Wolverine freshman guard Caris LeVert out of position to do that.
LeVert didn’t foul. He couldn’t have, not without giving Brust a chance to tie the game by shooting free throws. It was smarter to contest a running 40-foot shot. So, on the right side of the court, opposite the Wisconsin bench, LeVert got in front of the charging Brust and threw his hands up.
The shot was released from below Brust’s hip, needing a full windup to heave the ball more than one-third of the length of the court. It didn’t touch the backboard, and barely nicked the rim, but the sound that blasted out of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center after it went through the net could’ve blown the roof off the building.
There was an overtime, sure, but the Wolverines were understandably deflated, scoring just two points in the extra frame. The game ended when Brust hit that prayer of a shot, more or less.
Call it luck, call it fortune, call it whatever you want — it was a near-impossible shot that doesn’t go in more often than not.
And that’s what’s funny about college basketball, because just like that, a desperation heave completely changed the rest of the season for Michigan.
Saturday wasn’t the best game Michigan has played this year, not even close. The Wolverines couldn’t shoot, finishing the game under 40 percent from the floor and well under 30 percent from three. They couldn’t get to the line, shooting a grand total of two from the charity stripe on the day, partially because of referees and partially because nobody besides Burke was driving as much as usual.
They didn’t get contributions from the majority of the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman forward Jon Horford, freshman guard Nik Stauskas and freshman forward Glenn Robinson combined for 11 points — one point less than the sixth man, freshman forward Mitch McGary. Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. — the two starters that scored in double digits — scored a combined 37 points, more than three times the combined total of the other three starters.
By looking solely at the stat sheet, Michigan probably shouldn’t have won this game. But after Hardaway hit the shot before Brust’s prayer — a heavily contested 3-pointer to give Michigan the three-point lead with 2.4 seconds to go — this was a game the Wolverines needed to have.
This isn’t to say Michigan necessarily did anything wrong — Brust hit a hell of a shot, and sometimes you just have to give credit to the other team.
But depending on what happens Sunday, Michigan could drop as far down as fourth place in the Big Ten.
They are more than halfway through a brutal four-game, 11-day stretch, one that includes three road games and three games against ranked teams. After Saturday in Madison, the Wolverines have lost two of their last three. That makes the last game of the gauntlet, at Michigan State on Tuesday, all the more important.
It’s about as close to a must-win game as there can be for early February. A win means Michigan splits its toughest week-and-a-half of the season, so crucial for NCAA Tournament seeding and for the state of the team going into March.
A loss in East Lansing means one Michigan win in its last four games — something a team trying to win the Big Ten and earn a No. 1 overall seed can’t afford to do.
If Brust’s shot doesn’t go in, there isn’t as much pressure to win in the hostile Breslin Center on Tuesday. If Hardaway’s shot is the last made bucket of the game, Michigan remains close to the drivers’ seat of the Big Ten, regardless of what happens against Michigan State. If Brust doesn’t get a perfect inbounds pass, Michigan can foul, giving Wisconsin much less time to get a shot off.
If, if, if.
College basketball is a funny, fickle game, one where a team’s season can potentially swing in an instant.
It’ll be up to the Wolverines to make sure their season isn’t decided by a crazy, half-court shot that probably shouldn’t have gone in.