EAST LANSING — There’s a fine line between hope and optimism.
Hope — a feeling manifested from the presence of probable despair — is likely what a fan felt as the Michigan men’s basketball team matched up against the No. 4 Michigan State, a team that coach John Beilein called the best team in the country. Optimism, on the other hand: that’s what the Wolverines felt. A calculated assessment of what it takes to topple one of the flashiest teams in the country.
The Spartans made that “flashy” description well-known in the first half. Star wing Miles Bridges flushed down a punishing dunk just over a minute into the game. After a two-block possession, forward Jaren Jackson Jr. viciously slammed the ball home for the second time. And for the final bucket of the half, forward Gavin Schilling skied his arm back to corral Cassius Winston’s lob. Slam. The Breslin Center was restless.
“They’re gonna make a lot of highlight plays,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “They’re an athletic team. At the end of the day, it’s only two points. We just try to spread the message as possible because we knew it was a tough environment, a hostile environment and they were gonna make a run. We just had to weather the storm.”
And weather it they did. Moritz Wagner put health rumors to bed with 13 first-half points and floor spacing that Spartan forward Nick Ward couldn’t keep up with. He had a career-high 27 for the game. Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson also showed poise with a career-high 16 points. When Michigan State faltered — they had 18 turnovers — the Wolverines capitalized, boasting 25 points off of those giveaways. In a disciplined display of rightful optimism, Michigan (4-2 Big Ten, 15-4 overall) had just enough counter punches to stave off the Spartans (4-2, 16-3), 82-72, for the upset in East Lansing.
“For us to come in here and win the way we did today, where that first half was a highlight show and they were terrific in so many areas,” Beilein said. “At the same time, we only turned the ball over (seven) times, only gave them eight offensive rebounds, went to the foul and line and made foul shots — something we hadn’t been doing. There’s a lot of ways to win a game, and we found it.
“My assistant Saddi Washington from right here in Lansing said ‘Coach, this team may be different. This team has some of that grit that you may need to win games like that.’ That was evident today a couple times to us in timeouts and things like that. Whenever they’d make a little run or things were going their way, somebody came up with a big hoop or a big stop.”
Amid Michigan State’s glamorous first half, the Wolverines were level-headed. Their 12-for-33 shooting performance was forgettable, but their characteristically stout defense was not. Michigan was beating the Spartans on the offensive glass, 7-3, and hit three more treys for just a three-point halftime deficit. It was a gleeful sight for Beilein, who stressed offensive rebounding in his press conference on Friday.
The second-half was a slew of non-sequiturs, an unavoidable consequence of thirteen foul calls in six minutes. During the free throw battle, Michigan was continuing to score off of Michigan State’s turnovers, showing signs of running away with the game with 10 minutes to go.
But facing a five-point deficit, Bridges changed the tide. At the 9:41 mark, the wing exploded down the baseline for a jam, and the arena was once again on its feet. Guard Joshua Langford tipped the ball in the next possession. A turnover by redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews and free throws on the other end gave Michigan State the lead.
“We were up four and they got an and-one,” Simpson recalled. “I told my players ‘Just enjoy the moment. We (were just) up four, let’s take care of it. Take a deep breath.’ ”
Simpson’s equanimity resonated with Wagner. With the screams of Breslin Center almost palpable, Wagner stared down the basket and splashed a three to take back the lead. A scoop by Simpson around Jackson extended it further. The Wolverines would never look back.
“It’s definitely (a win) I’ll remember for the rest of my life because I know how much meaning this game has to other people and me,” Wagner said.“This group is special. Even though we’re young and inexperienced — that may be true — but we’re very determined. … You ain’t gonna beat MSU without being gritty.”
Instead of late-game miscues, Michigan was putting on a highlight reel of its own. Wagner dribbled around his back, leaving Ward in the dust for the underhand layup. The next possession, Matthews drove to the hoop with ease for an eight-point lead.
There was no look of fear by Matthews on the biggest stage of his career. It was the look of an unbridled confidence. The Wolverines upset the Spartans — it seems they were optimistic from the start.