The Game That Changed The Beilein Era, Part II — The Captain Steps Up
“Damn you, Bo, you will never win a bigger game!”
Former legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes didn’t hold back when recalling the 1969 meeting between his No. 1 Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan football team. Speaking at a function several years later, Hayes spotted his protégé-turned-rival in the crowd and uttered those now-famous words.
"He was right," Schembechler would say. "I don't think I ever did."
Former Michigan basketball coach John Beilein had his share of huge wins in his 12 years at U-M, from Final Four victories to Big Ten Tournament championships. Some would argue, though, that his biggest came on Jan. 27, 2011.
Beilein’s Wolverines were reeling, coming off a season in which they failed to make the NCAA Tournament. They were 1-6 in Big Ten play, had just lost to Minnesota at home (and — temporarily — ‘lost’ sophomore point guard Darius Morris) and were on the brink of a disastrous season.
To seemingly make matters worse, U-M had to travel to East Lansing to face a Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State team Beilein had yet to beat in four tries.
Juniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, different personalities but both leaders, went into the game knowing it was make-or-break.
“No one’s giving us a chance,” Novak recalled. “My message to the team was, ‘there aren’t many chances you’re going to be 1-6 and have one game that can literally turn the whole season around.’
“That was my message, and I kept saying that. It’s one game. We win this game and the whole season is turned around. We came in, and obviously we were ready to go.”
But not without some adversity. There was a snowstorm that day across much of the state, and it slowed the 60-mile bus ride considerably.
“It was crazy,” Novak continued. “We’re coming in, and we’re late. We literally got to the arena with less than 60 minutes on the [pregame] clock, which honestly was the best thing that ever happened.”
It wasn’t so much the avoidance of the MSU pregame shenanigans, though the early-arriving MSU student section known as the Izzone was known to be creative and — at times — ruthless. It was more that they didn’t have time to think of the enormity of the game and what it meant for the season.
With a win, the Wolverines would keep their slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive nearing the halfway point of the Big Ten season and provide Beilein with some much-needed goodwill. He’d gotten a vote of confidence from director of athletics David Brandon, but the fan base was growing impatient.
A loss would all but eliminate them from NCAA Tournament contention and turn up the heat.
“I always thought their pregame stuff was pretty funny … like the time they had a picture of Stu’s girlfriend in her Halloween costume blown up,” Novak said with a laugh. “But not everybody handles that well, especially a young team. I thought it was funny, sure. Did our freshmen think it was funny? Probably not.
“We didn’t have time to think about it. That environment’s not for everybody. But we show up late, and no one really has time to get psyched out. It was, ‘Put on your shoes and let’s go play.’”
So they did. Within two minutes, they found themselves down 6-0, and the MSU crowd was in a tizzy.
“We didn’t start off great,” Novak recalled. “But that’s kind of my job when [stuff] is getting off the rails — you’ve got to reel it back in.”
The Captain Steps Up
To that point, the rivalry game seemed to be following a similar script. The captain, though, wasn’t having it.
In short, if the Wolverines were going down that night, Novak wasn’t about to let them go quietly. He stepped up on defense, guarding future NBA All-Star Draymond Green — a player he’d outplay more than once in his career and finish with a 3-3 stalemate overall — and helping slow the Spartans’ leader.
On the other end, he got the Wolverines going with a four-point play from the right corner that quickly and effectively swung the momentum.
“I think I took a charge at the one end — then I got open in the corner and hit one,” he recalled. “You have those days where you shoot it and you’re thinking, ‘It’s going to be one of those days.’
“I knew from the very first shot it was on.”
It was one of four triples in the half for the captain, and his team followed his lead, building on the momentum. Morris (17 points) and a freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) helped with the scoring. Jordan Morgan patrolled the paint and directed traffic on defense, and U-M withstood the initial barrage to open a 24-18 lead.
It was better and trending well at that point, but good wasn’t good enough for Novak. The cameras caught him at the third TV timeout (7:57) of the first half exploding on his teammates, his face turning red.
Beilein and his staff gave him a minute to vent.
“I didn’t even really hear what he said,” Beilein recalled. “Once I saw what he was doing, I think I said to the coaches, ‘We need to step away and let him handle this.’
"I don’t know how far away we were, but I just said, ‘Let him go.’ I didn’t really listen to what he was saying other than, ‘We’re not going to lose this game.’ I knew that.”
To the lip readers, however, it appeared his ire was the result of a loose ball that got away just moments earlier – “Grab the [bleepin’] ball, every [bleepin’] time!”
“It totally was,” Novak recalled with a laugh. “It’s so funny, because everyone was like, ‘who’s he yelling at?’ And I’m yelling at Stu. He let the ball hit the ground.
“But It was less about Stu, because … look, I knew Stu was a big boy and he could handle it. It was more to just send a message to the team and everybody else that, ‘there’s no time not to be going 100 percent in this one. If you’re even thinking about it, then just stay on the bench.’”
The Wolverines were up 24-20 at the time, and Novak’s words had an effect. Little-used Colton Christian came in and hit a long jump shot with his foot on the three-point line, a sign, Beilein admitted, that it might just be their night.
Moments earlier, the coach recalled, Novak proved just how dialed-in he was by setting up a play for Lansing-area native Jon Horford.
“There was one play, a ‘Ricky Reese screen’ it’s called,” Beilein recalled. “Zack is talking Jon through the whole play. He’s a freshman, and he talks him all the way through the play, and as soon as the two Michigan State guys jump out on him, they give Jonny a lay-up.
“You can see Jon is unsure, and certainly the Michigan State players are unsure because they are guarding him and Zack’s telling everybody what to do. All of a sudden there’s a layup on a backscreen and a rescreen.”
Michigan would open a 14-point lead early in the second half behind Novak’s heroics. MSU rallied, but the captain responded again with a long triple at 7:15 to make it 55-42.
“We had great leadership on that team that year,” Beilein said. “Stu … Tim Hardaway was starting to feel it himself a little bit and was certainly getting better.
“But Zack was without question the vocal leader. Everybody listened to him. He was just sick of it … sick of all of those losses in that 1-6 start. A lot of it was just letdowns because of lack of focus and lack of understanding adversity.
“There was a little bit of ‘woe is me’ [on the team], and he wasn’t having it anymore. We were winning this game.”
It wouldn’t come easy down the stretch. It would take heroics from the other captain to secure one of the most important wins in program history, one that would set the stage for future unprecedented success.
NEXT: The Shot Heard 'Round The State, A Huge Win And The Aftermath
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