Mar. 3, 2013. Tied at 56, 32 seconds left. Bragging rights in a bitter rivalry hanging in the balance.
The Michigan men’s basketball team had just committed a crucial turnover on its own end of the floor, but the crowd at Crisler Center still caused the floor to shake as the Wolverines prepared for one final defensive stand against arch-rival Michigan State. With the shot clock turned off, the game plan appeared simple: Get a stop, win the game in overtime.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke had different ideas. He wanted to win it now.
“As soon as we turned the ball over, I started thinking of ways to get the ball back, like, ‘we’ve gotta get the ball back, or they’re gonna hold for the last shot,’ ” Burke told the Daily in a phone interview this week. “My mind automatically went to getting the steal.”
Matched up against Keith Appling, the Spartans’ star guard, Burke knew what to look for. Appling dribbled the ball up past half-court and turned his head towards Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. As Appling asked for a play call, his right hand was exposed. Despite the Spartans being in the double-bonus, Burke went for the steal.
“I had gotten it on a few other guards that year, but Keith Appling usually wouldn’t leave the ball there,” Burke said. “He usually would spin with the ball in the right hand, with his outside hand, so you can’t get it.”
This time, Appling was caught off guard. Burke swiped the ball away from the guard, racing down court with no one in pursuit. As he elevated towards the hoop, the sold-out crowd at Crisler Center reached a fever pitch.
This year, the second-ranked Wolverines and Spartans will match up for the final two games of the regular season. Michigan, of course, is slated to be a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and while Michigan State has struggled this year, a win over its in-state rival could help move it off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament picture. As has become routine in these matchups, each side has something to play for.
It’s easy to forget that the Wolverine-Spartan rivalry wasn’t always like this. For years, the rivalry was one only in name, with Michigan State routinely taking down Michigan.
The Spartans’ dominance was unmistakable. In the 2000s, the Wolverines managed just three wins total in the series, failing to make the NCAA Tournament in any of those years, their lone achievement a runner-up spot in the 2006 National Invitation Tournament. Michigan State, on the other hand, was a bona fide title contender seemingly every season, winning the NCAA Championship in 2000 and advancing to the Final Four five times in 10 years.
“It seemed like MSU had been dominating that rivalry for a long time,” former guard Corey Person told the Daily. “Even when it came to in-state, you saw a shift to what it had been in the past where a lot of Michigan guys were deciding to go to MSU instead of Michigan.”
In 2011, however, things began to change. Winning a road tilt in East Lansing, Michigan snapped a four-game losing skid in the series with a thrilling victory, capped off by a 3-pointer by junior guard Stu Douglass in the final seconds of a 61-57 victory. Following a 70-63 win in Ann Arbor later that year, Michigan coach John Beilein and his squad seemed to be shifting the pendulum in their direction for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Ann Arbor was no longer a fallback option for in-state recruits: It was a choice.
“The recruiting classes kinda changed,” Person said. “Guys started looking at Michigan again as an option. It wasn’t ‘I go to State or I go out of state’ anymore.”
In the 2012-13 season, Michigan traveled to East Lansing in February for its first matchup with the Spartans that season. Entering the game ranked No. 4, the Wolverines were ambushed as soon as they entered the Breslin Center, with Michigan State fans jeering the team during layup lines. Once the game started, the animosity between the two sides continued, and Appling and Burke were at the forefront.
“It always got personal just because of the competitors we were,” Burke said. “We both had a different type of competitive spirit when we played, and I feel like that’s what made us the guards we were that year in the Big Ten.”
Once the game started, Michigan was blitzed. Despite scoring 18 points on an efficient 7-for-11 shooting, Burke committed four fouls and was forced to watch much of the second half from the Wolverines’ bench in a 75-52 defeat. After the game, Burke was frustrated with his performance, accepting that Appling had won their bout. It only increased his motivation to make sure he came out on top in the next one.
On Mar. 3, 2013, he did.
As Burke made his way towards the hoop, he rose up and threw down a thunderous jam to put Michigan up, 58-56. While there have undoubtedly been more explosive dunks in the long history of the program, this one felt like history being written in real time.
“It was one of those things where it kinda just happened so fast,” then-freshman guard Spike Albrecht told the Daily. “You’re like, ‘No way did he just rip that, dude,’ then he goes down and dunks it and then the celebration just sets in.”
Added Beilein: “That’s as loud as that arena’s ever been.”
As the crowd erupted, Burke dropped down from the rim and took in the scene for himself. After a few moments, he collected himself: There was still work to be done.
“I knew that the game wasn’t over,” Burke said. “I knew we were gonna have to get another stand.”
Out of the timeout, Michigan State forward Derrick Nix split a pair of free throws to cut the lead to one. After freshman forward Mitch McGary missed the front end on a one-and-one for the Wolverines, the Spartans called for time with eight seconds to go.
With the Spartans needing just a bucket to win it, Burke took another risk. As Michigan State’s Gary Harris received the inbounds pass, Burke backed off of Appling and tried to close in on Harris, appearing to leave a window open for Appling in the corner. As Harris fired a pass to the corner, Burke stepped in front and intercepted it.
The final buzzer sounded, and the Wolverines had clinched a 58-57 win in perhaps one of the most electric games in the history of the rivalry.
“It was just two big plays that I think went down in history,” Burke said. “I’m just glad that I was able to be a part of it.”
As soon as Michigan clinched the victory, it was evident that Burke’s steal would be a moment that would live on in Wolverine lore. It would eventually serve as one of the signature plays in what became a Naismith Player of the Year-winning season for Burke. He remains the first and only player in program history to take home the award.
“When you look at Player of the Year, you look at moments like that, where they were able to single-handedly swing the game in their team’s favor,” Person said. “I remember a few of us saying, ‘Yeah, that’s the Player of the Year right there.’ ”
“Trey was the big man on campus always,” Albrecht added. “But definitely that day.”
Today, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has evolved into one of the best in college basketball. In this decade alone, the two teams have combined to appear in four Final Fours and two National Championship games and have also faced off in three Big Ten Tournament contests, with the Spartans holding a 2-1 edge.
“You’ll have the really good rivalries here and there, but who has had the type of success in the postseason, and they’re in the same league too?” Beilein said.
Michigan’s final two games of the 2020-21 regular season are a rivalry double-header, with the Wolverines hosting the Spartans on Thursday and heading to East Lansing on Sunday.
And you can bet the rivalry’s 2013 hero will be watching.
“I wish those guys the best of luck (tonight),” Burke said. “I’ll definitely be tuned in.”