Senior Gavin Groninger ran out to center court to meet freshman Daniel Horton and hoist him above his shoulders seconds after the Wolverines clinched their first victory against Michigan State in five years. The image of the two embracing at center court for a moment before they were rushed by fans and players alike, arms stretched towards the heavens, will surely be implanted in the mind’s eye of the Michigan basketball program for years to come.
The sold-out crowd in Crisler Arena was on its feet in anticipation of redemption in the waning seconds of the Wolverines’ 60-58 win over Michigan State – a win that ended five years of dominance on the part of the Spartans, who had rattled off eight straight wins and several blowouts.
With six and a half minutes left, Michigan State sophomore Chris Hill slashed to the hole for an uncontested lay-up. The bucket capped a 12-2 run by the Spartans and gave them their biggest lead of the game at 52-47. Hill, who did not start the game, finished as Michigan State’s leading scorer with 20 points and six assists.
But that would be the top of the hill for the Spartans, who relinquished the lead to the Wolverines at 4:36 and never got it back.
Michigan countered with a run of its own, scoring 11 unanswered points and holding Michigan State scoreless for a six-minute span.
“We had the five-point lead, I don’t think we did the best job of taking the best shots that we could get,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. We “panicked and threw up a couple of long shots (at the end of the) shot clock a couple of times.”
Referring to a play where freshman Daniel Horton out-hustled Michigan State freshman Paul Davis for a loose ball late in the game, Izzo said it was “embarrassing and disappointing to me and our program and those little things are what this team hasn’t learned yet.”
In the Big Ten season, staunch defense has been typical for the Wolverines in the Big Ten, who have used late-game defensive stands to extend or reclaim leads, allowing them to win the game on the free-throw line.
Two quick layups by freshmen Lester Abram and Horton got Michigan back in it, and then a Horton free throw knotted the game at 52 a piece with 4:36 left.
A minute later, senior captain LaVell Blanchard, who did not make a basket in the game, let a three go from the corner that sucked the air out of Crisler. Blanchard, the team’s leading scorer, came up short, continuing a scoring drought that left him 0-for-5 in the game.
Horton was the answer to the scoring dearth when he made a beeline around high screen, caught Bernard Robinson’s pass, and let go a 3-pointer over Hill that was destined to find the bottom of the net. The bucket gave Michigan a four-point lead with 1:24 remaining and caused Crisler to explode in jubilation.
“That was a tough shot that he hit going away from the basket, but maybe that is the mark of a great player,” Izzo said. “Sometimes it is with scoring, and sometimes with passing and there are not a lot of guys who can do both.
“He has Mateen (Cleaves) qualities, he has a calming effect on his team. I am very impressed with Daniel.”
Horton’s classmates should have been equally impressive to Izzo. The five played with the poise and maturity of veterans, providing key buckets in clutch situations. In all, the rookie class scored more than two-thirds of Michigan’s points.
“This is pretty big and it’s just as physical,” Horton, a Texas native, said of comparisons to the Texas-Oklahoma football rivalry. “The only difference is the fans aren’t fighting each other in the stands. I see now that it is a very special rivalry in the state.”
With one minute remaining, freshman Chris Hunter stepped up and blocked an Erazem Lorbek dunk that was inches away from being in the cylinder. The block got Michigan the ball back, allowing it to stretch the lead beyond Michigan State’s reach. Hill hit two 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds, but they would not be enough for the floundering Spartans, who are now 2-4 in the Big Ten.
Yesterday’s win went a long way in restoring the rivalry, according to Izzo, who now believes that the teams are “perfectly even.” But it also did a big job in redeeming the previous three years of losing to all the Michigan seniors.