What’s left to say at this point? What’s left to discuss? After three games, after three second half comebacks, there’s no disputing that Michigan State is the better team. That Michigan played as well as it did for as long as it did, and kept it as close as it was for as long as it was, is a testament to how hard Michigan played. But while the Wolverines played hard, they didn’t always play well – or with composure. Michigan State, on the other hand, did. The Spartans made the big plays down the stretch, and that was the game.
After the game, Michigan coach John Beilein conceded that while Michigan played hard, it didn’t always do the right things. More specifically, the Wolverines took too many ill-advised shots. “We wasted some possessions on offense and we can’t do that,” Beilein said. But why did Michigan give away so many possessions? And why did it seem to happen so much in the game’s final minutes?
Michigan is very talented, but rather inexperienced. Beilein noted that Michigan lost some “pretty good players” from last year’s Final Four team. “We’re not a new team,” Beilein continued, “but we’re not an experienced team in playing games like this.” That inexperience showed Sunday.
That’s not the case with Michigan State, however. I wrote last week that there’s a certain composure to this Michigan State team, a sense of poise. That poise propelled Michigan State to the conference championship.
Michigan State started fast, and jumped to an early 17-11 lead. But Michigan righted the ship and wrested control of the game, finishing the half on a 20-6 run to take an eight-point lead into the locker room. Michigan pushed that lead to as much as 13 points early in the second half and still led by 12 at the 16-minute mark. Faced with a double-digit second-half deficit, Michigan State hardly panicked, and methodically caught the Wolverines, tying the game 48-48 with just over seven minutes to play. If there was a surprise, it was that Michigan gathered itself and regained the lead, and still led 60-55, with just over two minutes to play.
But that’s where Michigan State’s composure kicked in … and Michigan’s didn’t. Iggy Bradzeikis said that Beilein told the team after the game, “We weren’t composed in certain times when we need to be,” and unfortunately for Michigan, those times were primarily during crunch time. “(We) had some key moments where we shot some shots we don’t normally shoot,” Jon Teske added, “But they executed down the stretch.” Execute, they did. The Spartans ended the game on a 10-0 run, and that was the game in a two-minute nutshell.
It was a disappointing finish for Michigan, but a terrific game. In front of more than 18,000 fans, the championship game between the conference’s two best teams did not disappoint. The United Center was as loud and the atmosphere as charged as any basketball game I’ve attended. A split crowd, with each team’s fan base sounding like the majority at differing points throughout the afternoon. It was an ultra-intense affair in which both teams left it all on the floor. As good a Big Ten championship game as there’s been. But in the end, as Beilein pointed out, Michigan State, “made some plays that we could not make,” and in doing so, kept Michigan from winning its third consecutive Big Ten championship.
So where does Michigan go from here? Literally speaking, to Des Moines. Michigan was placed in the West Regional, where they’ll strangely battle Montana in the opening round for the second consecutive year. Looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, Beilein said, “Hopefully we’ll learn from it (Sunday’s loss) so that we go to the NCAA tournament, we can play for awhile in March again.”
Beilein is probably right about playing for a while. Three losses to a very good Michigan State team do not invalidate this season. Michigan won 28 games and is a very good team that can play deep into March … as long as it doesn’t come up against Michigan State.