One play does not decide a game. It's a phrase that's part of nearly every coach's post-game mantra following a contest that's decided by a late, often negative play. The logic being, that in a 40 minute game with 65 possessions by each team, no one play has any more impact on the game's outcome than any other. By that measure, one play certainly cannot decide a season. Yet in Ann Arbor Sunday, one play appeared to do just that, as Trey Burke's steal and subsequent dunk with 22 seconds left in regulation saved not only the game for Michigan, but very likely its season, as well.
Burke's defensive gem salvaged a game that the Wolverines seemed intent on letting slip away. Down 10 points with less than four minutes to play, Michigan State rallied, and with the shot clock off, Keith Appling was setting up the Spartans for a potential game winning shot when Burke interceded. Had the Spartans escaped with the win, Michigan would have suffered its fifth loss in eight games, lost the season series to the Spartans and fallen to fifth place in the Big Ten. The Wolverines would have also lost for the third time in which they appeared to have victory all but wrapped up (losing a three point lead with 2.4 seconds left to Wisconsin, a 15 point lead with 10:40 remaining to Penn State and nearly losing a 10 point lead to the Spartans). Michigan would have been reeling heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
But while Sunday's victory put Michigan back on the winning track and gained a measure of revenge against the Spartans, it didn't cure all of Michigan's ails. Michigan came into Sunday's game with many concerns, chief among them its defense, its ability to keep opposing teams off the glass and its ability to close. It's performance Sunday did little to temper these concerns, particularly with respect to rebounding, as Michigan State had its way on the boards much of the day, finishing with 17 offensive and 41 total rebounds. Michigan State attacked the glass with such impunity, that when Michigan managed to secure a defensive rebound, it seemed like cause for celebration.
But even more concerning than its defensive and rebounding struggles, Michigan came into its rematch against Michigan State with its toughness questioned. Michigan was not only blown off the court three weeks ago in East Lansing, but with the exception of Burke, the Wolverines didn't seem to have the same fight or passion that the Spartans displayed. Since that game, the Wolverines fight, or lack thereof, has been openly addressed by Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Coach John Beilein, all saying, in effect, that the Wolverines need to be tougher. So in one respect, beating the Spartans Sunday was secondary in importance to proving that the Wolverines could compete with a Spartan team that bullied them three weeks ago. Michigan addressed that concern well before Burke's late game heroics.
Michigan State is still the more physical team and its big men were once again a force, particularly Adreian Payne, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds and generally had his way inside (when he wasn't draining threes from the top of the key). Michigan's big men, on the other hand, time and again missed layups and had balls knocked from their hands. True to their nature, the Spartans were active inside on defense and attacked the offensive glass in waves. But unlike the teams' last meeting, this time Michigan also kept attacking.
As usual, the Michigan attack was led by Burke, who not only scored 21 points, dished out eight assists (often in spectacular fashion) and recorded five steals, four rebounds and a block, but repeatedly and fearlessly drove to the hole. But this time, Burke wasn't alone. Jordan Morgan kept battling inside and Mitch McGary and Caris LeVert, in particular, displayed a welcome aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. And on the game's final play, shaking off a poor shooting performance, Hardaway played terrific on-ball defense, harassing Gary Harris into turning the ball over as time expired. In continuing to battle the Spartans even when their shots weren't falling and loose balls weren't going their way, the Wolverines showed the mettle that many doubted they had.
So after a rough month, Michigan's future suddenly looks brighter. The road to the Final Four certainly doesn't look as clear as it did early in the season, but the road to the Sweet Sixteen doesn't look as difficult as it did in recent weeks, either. Sunday's performance suggested that despite a rough spate of games, Michigan's best basketball may not be behind them, and that while the Wolverines still have their flaws, if push comes to shove, Michigan is capable of pushing back.
So while one play may not decide or define a season, perhaps one game can.