Freshman sniper Nik Stauskas left Sunday's 58-57 win over Michigan State early, taking an inadvertent elbow to the eye. The Wolverines then proceeded to go 0-for-12 from three-point range, the first time in 20-plus years a John Beilein coached team didn't hit a triple in a game. It was going to take the unconventional for the Wolverines to pull one out, along with plenty of grit and a lot of heart.
The last time U-M played MSU, the Wolverines were coming of a stunning loss at Wisconsin they had all but won before Ben Brust's contested, 40-foot triple sent it to overtime. This time they entered on the heels of the worst loss in the Beilein era, a six-point setback at Penn State that likely cost them a shot at the Big Ten title.
And then? They took Michigan State's best shot in the first half, did the vast majority of their scoring in the paint (while keeping the Spartans' Derrick Nix out of it on the other end) and - had they made a few more of their bunnies - might have been up six or eight more than the 10 they were down the stretch.
It seems those "ifs" and "buts" are destined to stick around in this rivalry now, one that stands 4-2 in favor of Michigan since an improbable win two years ago following a 1-6 Big Ten start. The Wolverines will always get MSU's best shot as long as Tom Izzo is at the helm, and it took something special - in addition to sophomore point guard Trey Burke - to beat the Spartans this time.
"Sometimes we've had wins here that were real pretty where we did everything right and the ball went in," Beilein said. "Today it was all about grit. Michigan State really does a great job defensively, and we were going to have to score the ball in different ways, stop them in different ways."
Often twice for the latter. MSU racked up 19 offensive rebounds, some with toughness, some the benefit of the bounce. The Spartans also turned it over 18 times, negating the rebounding advantage.
The biggest came with 22 seconds remaining after the Spartans rallied from 10 down to tie it. Burke hounded MSU guard Keith Appling at halfcourt before stripping him cleanly, finishing with a two-hander to give the Wolverines a two-point lead that would hold up - but not before Burke notched a second steal to ice it following some great on-the-ball defense by junior Tim Hardaway Jr. [six points, seven rebounds] on MSU freshman Gary Harris.
Burke stated his case for national player of the year honors with his 21-point, eight-rebound, five-steal performance, treating the home crowd to more heroics. If time is winding down on his Michigan career, as some believe, he's doing his part to make sure he won't soon be forgotten.
"He was incredible," Beilein said. "When we thought, 'here we go again,' that it was going to go into overtime, which would be the good news at that point, or have seven or eight seconds left or get a rebound and go into overtime - or they're going to win - all of a sudden I just take my eyes off for a second to see their formation, there's Trey going down to the other end. He's very good at that. That was huge, and his defense on the last play was excellent."
So was the game plan, which involved tweaks to the ball screen defense that had plagued U-M much of the year and an infusion of freshman guard Caris LeVert [eight points, two steals], whose energy was key on the defensive end. The post defense, led by redshirt junior Jordan Morgan (four points, seven rebounds, three steals), was infinitely better than it was in a blowout loss at MSU last month, and the Wolverines played effectively through the Spartans' clutch and grab defense to score just enough.
"It's all about grit," Beilein repeated. "We've been working out, preaching it. Our guys, they buy into it - all the things you have to do when you're tired, when the schemes change. They have to really understand it and understand it better. We also changed our ball screen package a little from our last game, and that was very helpful."
They beat the No. 9 Spartans without playing their 'A' game, something that wouldn't have been possible a few short years ago. Getting off the mat would have been harder than ever with a loss, Beilein admitted, especially with tough games at Purdue (which, as usual, will be a dogfight despite the records) and home to Indiana coming up.
Thanks to an equal amount Burke and heart, they won't have to. They heard their critics following the PSU loss, answered them and showed character in notching a huge win in what we can now call a bitter (and real) rivalry again.
"We needed something like this," Beilein said. "Of the top teams in our league, there are five of them that are a little bit separated. Ohio State is the only one we had a win over coming into this game. In reality, the way the season has gone and the reliance of some great young players, it was probably pretty realistic. At the same time, we needed to beat some of the higher teams in this league to really look at ourselves [positively]."
That, coming from the coach of one of the nation's top 10 teams, is as indicative of how far Michigan basketball has come under Beilein's watch as anything.
Freshman big man Mitch McGary struggled in East Lansing, but he played a key role in the second half Sunday. He finished with 11 points and four rebounds, three on offense, and enjoyed a key five-minute stretch in which he scored six points.
"He's taken these two step forward so many times," Beilein said. "He'll continue to learn through the game and play through fatigue. He gave us big lift, got us up to five on the big plays he made, whether it was a tap-in or little jump shot - those were huge plays for hm.
"He is a talent. I'm so excited to coach him every day. He has a great care level, wants to be a better player. He just needs to clean up his efficiency of what he can do."
Stauskas indicated via social media that he was fine, but Beilein said he wasn't sure what to expect for Wednesday's game at Purdue.
"I haven't talked with anybody - I don't think he felt real good, so why put him out in the middle of that," Beilein said. "He went back in the training room."
LeVert stepped up with four key points in transition and a solid defensive effort.
"Caris in that situation played all those minutes, finishing the end of the first half [with a transition lay-up] was huge for us," Beilein said. "He's one of our better defenders; we know that. He played a huge role today."
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