Just past the halfway mark of the second half in Sunday's clash between Michigan and Michigan State, the game seemed to take on a different tone. Tied at 48, Michigan seemed no longer content simply battling to keep up with the Spartans, but rather decided that the game was its to win. You could almost see an increase in confidence with each possession as Michigan repeatedly took advantage of favorable match-ups and began to forge ahead. A little over four minutes later, after a Caris LeVert three-pointer, Michigan was up ten and was in control the rest of the way. While short of dominating, it was a convincing victory and left the Wolverines in sole possession of first place as the Big Ten season reaches the home stretch.
It was a game in which the Spartans shot 54% from the field and nearly 40% from beyond the arc and still lost by nine. But Michigan also shot well, connecting on 50% of its shots, including 42% from three-point range. Michigan also took care of the ball, recording 15 assists while committing just three turnovers, and limited the amount of damage Adreian Payne and company were able to do inside. Payne finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but never seemed to get on track and was never a dominating force. All of this factored in Michigan's favor, but in the end, Michigan won because its stars shined, as LeVert and Nik Stauskas combined to score 48 of the Wolverines' 79 points. LeVert kept the Wolverines in it early and Stauskas took over the game late, scoring 21 second half points and finishing 9-13 from the field, connecting on many attempts that likely would have earned most players a seat on the bench. Glenn Robinson III chipped in with 15 points, but Stauskas and LeVert were the story for the Wolverines, at one point scoring all of Michigan's 23 points during a crucial ten-minute stretch in the second half when the Wolverines assumed control of the game.
In a season of big wins for Michigan, this stands as the biggest. The victory leaves Michigan alone in first place, but it also changes the tenor of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. Coming into the game, Michigan had won five of the last seven meetings between the two teams, but somehow it didn't feel like it. It still felt like Michigan State had the superior program and Michigan simply scratched out a win against the Spartans here and there. However, after Sunday's victory, that is no longer the case. That's not to say that Michigan suddenly has the superior program, that distinction comes with conference championships and NCAA tournament success, but it's hard to argue that the schools aren't on equal footing. Michigan is in a position to claim at least a share of its second conference championship in three seasons and has beaten the Spartans six times in eight tries. Michigan State's senior class, led by Payne and Keith Appling, still has a chance to keep Tom Izzo's Final Four streak intact, but it is assured of a losing record against Michigan - and will graduate without ever having won in Ann Arbor.
With four games to play, Michigan has to like the position it's in, as it controls its fate in the conference race. Yet, if this Big Ten season has taught us anything, it's that you can't expect the expected. So while Sunday's victory didn't assure Michigan the conference title, it did put the Wolverines in the driver's seat. And perhaps as importantly, it further confirmed that Michigan is capable of playing well in big games and in big moments, something that bodes well for Wolverines' chances in the upcoming conference and NCAA tournaments.