EAST LANSING –
After Michigan beat rival Michigan State last month, Michigan fans knew the Spartans would be even hungrier when the Wolverines had to travel to the Breslin Center for the rematch. Michigan would have to prepare for a team with Final Four-caliber talent ready to fight to defend its home court.
And that’s exactly what the Wolverines ran into: a team willing to fight.
For the past decade, the “rivalry” had looked more like a mismatch. A heavyweight matched up against a middleweight. A squad of five-star recruits pitted against walk-ons. A varsity team playing against its JV counterparts.
But when Michigan toppled the mighty Spartans last month, it looked like the tide might finally be changing.
The swagger that started to pop up following its 72-67 victory was there again on Saturday. The Wolverines looked hungry early on. They, too, were ready to fight and make a legitimate case for Ann Arbor as the basketball capital of Michigan.
But maybe they were a little too eager to match their counterpart’s intensity. A little too eager to topple their rivals – a little too eager to fight.
That eagerness became apparent even before the game started. Amadou Ba showed his willingness to fight during warm-ups. Although it probably wasn’t the way Michigan coach Tommy Amaker would’ve wanted his players to fight, it showed they weren’t going to back down. The only backing down that happened was the backing down that Izzone student section leader Bobby Brock did – right onto the hardwood.
An apparently drunk Michigan State student got in an altercation with the senior, who abruptly ended the confrontation by shoving him to the floor.
If this rivalry needed anything else to stir the pot, it’s safe to say that Ba’s shove did the trick.
Early on, Michigan’s pregame fire translated to the court.
It jumped out to an early eight-point lead just five minutes into the game. Horton looked calm, the defensive pressure was there and Brent Petway was making big plays in relief of an injured Chris Hunter.
But Michigan wasn’t playing Minnesota, who just lied down and accepted defeat after falling behind early. The Wolverines were up against Michigan State, a team with a winning pedigree.
After weathering the early Michigan storm, it started to become evident that the Spartans weren’t willing to relinquish their title as state champions just yet.
It also became painfully obvious that Michigan didn’t have the ability to maintain its early intensity.
Following a Shannon Brown reverse alley-oop that ignited the Izzone and gave Michigan State a four-point lead midway through the half, Petway tried to answer with an emphatic dunk of his own. Instead of taking the sure points, he tried one-upping Brown.
His dunk attempt clanked off the back rim and turned into an easy lay-in for Michigan State.
Sometimes, swagger should be trumped by common sense.
Instead, Michigan’s swagger and momentum completely shifted to the Spartans – along the lead.
And the Spartans never relinquished it.
Michigan State kept pulling away and pulling away. Michigan’s early intensity on defense was gone. The tight man defense turned into a soft zone, and the opportunistic Spartans were chomping at the bit to take advantage.
The defense that looked to finally get it all together against Minnesota reverted back to its old ways. Ba had shown the most fight out of anyone wearing Maize and Blue on the night, and it happened an hour before tipoff.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to beat a team like Michigan State, especially when you’re dealing with injuries. It’s even harder when it’s at the Breslin Center (Michigan State remains undefeated at home). And it’s near impossible when Michigan State’s three-headed monster is running on all cylinders (Brown, Ager and Davis combined for 63 points).
But if you can’t stand toe-to-toe with your rival and be willing to fight back for 40 minutes, none of the aforementioned factors matter.
Michigan had the size advantage, but managed to get killed on the boards.
It supposedly had its kinks worked out with its perimeter defense, but allowed Michigan State to shoot 13-of-20 from downtown.
And it had the chance to sweep Michigan State for the first time in a decade, but
40 minutes and a 19-point loss later, all the Wolverines proved was they’re not in the same league yet.
Michigan made a statement in January by beating its rivals. But the Wolverines failed miserably in validating it on Saturday.
So, at least until next season, Michigan will be stuck looking up at Michigan State, who will remain atop the pedestal – as state champs.
Scott Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org