STATE COLLEGE – In the 69th minute of the Big Ten Tournament championship game, Penn State forward Pasi Karpinnen spotted Joe Zewe open down the right sideline and sent a beautiful pass to lead his streaking teammate. Zewe gained possession of the ball, took a few strides and blasted a shot past Michigan keeper Peter Dzubay to make the score 2-0 Penn State. The jubilant Wolverines faithful who had made the trek to State College went silent; anyone wearing maize and blue had to realize the implications of the Nittany Lion score. Up to that point, the Penn State defense had completely shut down Michigan’s attack, and a two-goal deficit seemed more than insurmountable.
With just 20 minutes remaining in the match, it would have been easy for the Wolverines to give up. By reaching the tournament final, Michigan had already achieved more than many would have expected out of a program in its third year of existence. Also, the Wolverines semifinal win over Michigan State had almost guaranteed Michigan a spot in the NCAA tournament. They had played impressively in the tournament, but as it looked, would fall a few scores short of champion status.
So game over, right? Wrong.
Although Penn State eventually won the game 2-1, in a microcosm of the Wolverines’ season, Michigan battled until the final whistle blew.
After the game, Penn State coach Barry Gorman applauded Michigan’s relentless finish by stating that “the final whistle couldn’t have come sooner,” and later praised the Wolverines for their sustained effort.
“Michigan has really come a long way in three years,” Gorman said. “It is a very young program, and my hat’s off to them. I thought also they came back very strongly in the second half, and again, it’s a conference matchup, they never say die.”
Never say die indeed.
On Oct. 20, Michigan entered a game at Wisconsin very unsure of where their season was headed. Up to that point the Wolverines had accumulated a 4-6-1 record overall, including an 0-3 mark in Big Ten play. Rolling over and beginning to prepare for the 2003 campaign did not look very far out of the question. But Michigan persevered, beating the Badgers in a thriller, 3-2. This game catapulted the Wolverines to an eight-game unbeaten streak before yesterday’s defeat in the Big Ten Tournament final. Michigan coach Steve Burns credits the streak to the optimistic approach that never left the Wolverines.
“The coaching staff always remained positive, we stuck with the game plan, we continued to believe in the process and we realized we were a good team who had gotten a couple of unlucky breaks along the way,” Burns said. “It’s a compliment to these guys because they know what the concept of team is all about, and how powerful that force can be if it all comes together at the right time. The coaching staff and players never lost confidence, and that’s kind of a lesson for us.”
Burns acknowledges that this unmerciful run was a big step for the program, but does not want his players to forget what brought them their success.
“It’s a breakout for us, and we were hoping it would happen within the first four years of our program,” Burns said. “We were pleased that it happened here, but my job is to make sure that there’s no complacency that sets in. When they’re hauling themselves up at 6:30 in the morning, in the middle of February, and it’s 10 degrees below 0, to go for a run, that they know why they’re doing it. It’s for these moments right here.”
So, now that the Big Ten season is done, what’s next on tap for the “never say die” Wolverines? Most likely, the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the players all have a little smile on their face because we’re feeling pretty good about the fact that we’re a team that has come together at the right time,” Burns said.
“I think they’ll take at least three, or maybe four teams from the Big Ten. And if so, I think we’ve got a good chance of being one.”