Tied at 72, just two minutes left to play. Sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin stood to the right of the logo. Ball in his hands, Michigan State guard Tyson Walker sagged five feet off him. With nine seconds left on the shot clock, junior center Hunter Dickinson came up to set a screen. Spartan forward Joey Hauser hedged, forcing Bufkin toward Michigan’s sideline. Six seconds left on the shot clock. Bufkin, looking to create space with a stepback, bobbled the ball. Four seconds left on the shot clock.
That bobble gave Walker enough time to recover defensively. As Bufkin snatched the ball from midair, rising for the dagger, Walker contested the shot every inch of the way. Textbook defense. Two seconds left on the shot clock.
“Really no reaction right there,” Bufkin said of his clutch bucket. “Until they called a timeout, we were worried about getting another stop. But, obviously, when the timeout came we celebrated a little bit. It’s just right back to the next possession.”
While there was no initial celebration, Bufkin’s shot proved decisive in an eventual 84-72 win for the Michigan men’s basketball team. Finishing with 17 points while shooting 6-for-9 from the field, Bufkin’s first five field goals won’t be remembered. That sixth bucket, though, is now forever etched into the text of this storied rivalry.
“He made a three that was right there in front of our bench, and as he was shooting it, I’m like ‘please go in,’ ” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “The basketball gods answered.”
Whether it’s due to good karma with the basketball gods or an innate gene that allows him to rise up in critical moments, Bufkin hits clutch shots. While that ability culminated in a single, game-defining shot Saturday night, Bufkin has brandished that skill all year.
In the Wolverines’ Nov. 20 contest against Ohio, Bufkin hit a pair of free throws with just two seconds left in regulation, ultimately saving Michigan from an upset after a ridiculous last-second Bobcats bucket forced overtime. Without the cushion provided by Bufkin’s free throws, the Wolverines could’ve faced a loss to a mid-major at home.
Even in losses, his clutch play is present as well.
Against Iowa on Jan. 12, Bufkin once again had the ball in the final minute of regulation. Driving before stopping on a dime to create space for a mid-range jumper, he connected to put Michigan up four. Even though Bufkin fouled Iowa guard Payton Sandfort on a 3-pointer just seconds later, allowing the four-point play that ultimately cost the Wolverines the game, Bufkin still scored a crucial bucket — one that might’ve been the dagger on another night.
Last Tuesday against Wisconsin, Bufkin’s ability to hit big shots carried Michigan through multiple stretches of the game, keeping it within striking distance. Midway through the second half, Bufkin scored seven straight points to help the Wolverines turn a 10-point deficit into a one-point deficit entering the final four minutes of play. While Michigan failed to complete the comeback, Bufkin helped give it a fighting chance.
All of those moments were glimpses of Bufkin’s clutch ability, but they all came with an asterisk, too — whether it be an overtime period, a loss, or both. The perfect ending still eluded him.
Against Michigan State, Bufkin found it. He hit the biggest shot of his young career as a Wolverine, and his performance boosted Michigan to a win. Everything came together.
“Will. That’s called will — and not Will Tschetter,” Howard joked. “I’m talking about just having the will to go out there and make a play when we need it.”
Bufkin’s will — and his ability to connect on big shots — climaxed Saturday night in Crisler Center against the Wolverines’ in-state rivals.
For Bufkin, though, those shots are just another part of his game. Which is why, when Bufkin sat down postgame, he answered the first question he fielded before it was done being asked:
“I knew it was good when I shot it.”