ATLANTA — With six minutes left in Michigan’s 82-76 loss to Louisville in the National Championship, Trey Burke launched himself off the ground and toward the backboard, stretching his arm as far up as it could possibly go, trying to stop the trajectory of Louisville guard Peyton Siva.
It was a breakaway play in transition, one-on-one, point guard against point guard. Siva rose up with his right hand, cradling the ball, trying to slam it up and over Burke.
Any other point guard either lets Siva go or tries to strip the ball in the air. Burke tried to block it.
Ninety seconds prior, the sophomore point guard had been lying facedown on the court, trying to recover after being fouled hard on a drive. He had been beaten up all game by the physical Cardinal defense, and it was starting to take its toll.
Burke got up and walked to the free-throw line, head down. Jordan Morgan caught him before he got to the stripe, telling Burke to lift his head. Morgan knew his point guard was hurting. The redshirt junior center told him, “Just keep fighting. Just six more minutes.”
Burke nodded, but missed the first free throw. He muttered something under his breath, took a breath, stepped forward and made the second one. He was in pain.
But in the open court against Siva, the 6-foot Burke got up higher than he had all season. Half of his forearm was above the rim, where his hand met nothing but the ball. It was a clean rejection, a perfect defensive play and a perfect snapshot of two leaders leaving everything on the line.
Then, a whistle. Burke was called for the foul, and Siva made both his free throws.
After the game, 11 players and coaches were asked if the play was clean. All 11 said it was, but all said it ultimately didn’t affect the outcome. There were so many other plays that swung the game.
All 11 praised the point guard for being able to even get there.
“If there’s one person who can’t hang his head, it’s Trey,” said freshman guard Nik Stauskas. “He’s carried us all year long.”
There’s a story that Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan likes to tell about Burke.
In the first open gym of Burke’s Michigan career in the summer of 2011, Jordan approached Burke and asked him, “You like winning, don’t you?” Burke, then 19, responded, “Coach, I win. That’s what I do.”
Jordan knew that Burke had won the Ohio State Championship as a sophomore in high school, so he laughed and nodded, trying to humor his young point guard.
Dead serious, without a glint of humor, Burke looked up at Jordan, shook his head and said, “Coach, I win. That’s what I do.”
That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that Jordan believed Burke, the soon to be freshman who hadn’t yet played in a collegiate game. Jordan could see the drive that earned Michigan a Big Ten title last year and brought it six points away from a national championship this year.
After two years, Ann Arbor has seen it, probably for the last time Monday. He almost left last year, but on April 9, 2012, he said, “I felt like it was the best decision for me to stay my sophomore year and compete for a national championship next year.”
After sweeping the four major National Player of the Year awards and getting the Wolverines to Atlanta, Burke accomplished what he wanted to. For him, there’s nothing left to accomplish at Michigan. It’s almost a foregone conclusion he will play in the NBA next year.
But on Monday, he was still a Wolverine, and he was still the best player in the country, still the player capable of making shots 30 feet from the basket. Every time it felt like the game was slipping away, there was Burke, willing Michigan back into it.
He finished the contest with a game-high 24 points while missing just four shots and tallied six of Michigan’s last 10 points. He couldn’t, wouldn’t let his team let it slip away.
“He’s a superhero. A mythological figure,” said senior captain Josh Bartelstein. “I’ve never enjoyed playing with anybody so much. He’s the best basketball player I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with some good players. That kid is going to have an unbelievable career in the NBA.”
It’s not a one-man game, though. With 40 seconds left, Burke knew Michigan needed to foul, but also knew he had four of his own. Manically, he tried waving freshman guard Caris LeVert — or anyone he could find — over to commit the infraction. Nobody else understood, and time kept ticking away. Burke’s last two shot attempts fell short.
At 1:42 a.m., a pocket of confetti fell from the rafters, the last of the celebration. The court was already being disassembled, the nets already cut down. The game, season and career was over.
Trey Burke wins. That’s what he does. On Monday, there was nothing more he could have done — he had nothing more to give.
With the seconds ticking down, Siva walked over to Burke and gave him a hug, a nod of respect. He saw what Jordan saw, back before Burke came onto the national scene.
Siva knew that there was no point guard in the country that could have made that play, because there was no point guard in the country like Trey Burke.
Cook can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @everettcook