Trey Burke had been setting Keith Appling up the whole game, baiting Michigan State’s junior point guard to spin right with the ball.
All game long, Burke had been letting Appling move the ball from his left hand to his right hand while spinning away from Michigan’s sophomore point guard, even though it created an opportunity for a steal.
The pick was open and Burke could have taken advantage of it, but he didn’t, saving it in his back pocket for the right moment, when he really, really needed a steal.
That moment came with 25 seconds left in a tie game, the fourth-ranked Wolverines and the ninth-ranked Spartans battling in March, once again. Michigan had just been embarrassed by the worst team in the Big Ten, Penn State, and Michigan State had lost two in a row. Both teams needed a win.
Appling dribbled the ball up the floor with his left hand, then turned his back to Burke. The Columbus native thought Appling was going to call a timeout, but he didn’t, instead trying once again to spin around Michigan’s floor general.
Burke picked him clean with his right hand around the half-court line, needing two dribbles to put Michigan ahead and its season back on the right track with a dunk at the other end.
He misses the steal and he’s out of the play, forcing Michigan to try and defend five with four. He makes it, and he gives Michigan lead, and basically the game.
“Who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gotten that steal?” Burke said. “Maybe we’d be crushed here — they hit a game-winning shot so I felt like it was my job to try to make a play for this team.”
Less than 22 seconds later, Burke did it again. Michigan State had hit a free throw, and Michigan had missed one. With 4.9 seconds left, the Spartans had the ball down one with a chance to win the game.
Michigan State guard Gary Harris tried to pass the ball into the corner, but Burke was waiting, tipping the ball right into his own hands. He held on for the last second, sending Crisler Center into hysterics.
Twenty-two seconds, two steals, one 58-57 win.
“You have to know when to pick and choose your spot,” junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “He’s confident about it. If it works, it works, but if it doesn’t, the game could have gone either way.”
On a night when Michigan didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time since 1999, Burke stepped up. He led all scorers with 21 points, while the rest of the starting lineup combined for 18. There was only one other Wolverine in double digits. Michigan had 10 assists on the night and Burke had eight of them, which led all players. He also had five steals, none more important than the last two.
Plus, freshman guard Nik Stauskas, Michigan’s sharpshooter and third-leading scorer, left the game early, requiring stitches on a cut near his eye after getting an accidental elbow to the forehead. Hardaway, Michigan’s second-leading scorer, never got going, finishing with six points on 3-of-12 shooting.
So, the elements for an upset were there. It says a lot about Burke that the game even came down to the last couple possessions. It came down to the gamble, a calculated risk that gave Michigan arguably its most important win of the season.
Burke misses, and Michigan’s season continues to spiral. A loss would have made five defeats in eight games and would have dropped the Wolverines out of the top 10.
But the sophomore, like he has done all season, didn’t miss. He carried Michigan, again, when they needed him the most.
There have been times this season when Michigan has looked lost, especially in the thick of the incredibly difficult Big Ten schedule, needing a push or a boost.
More often than not, the catalyst has been Burke, and more often that not, he executes something that seems to have been in his back pocket all along.
Cook can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @everettcook