March 4, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan, Michigan State fun to watch, but hard to figure out

Ann Arbor -- Ah, the rejuvenating possibilities of March, and the invigorating qualities of a real rivalry. The Wolverines were beaten down, reeling, and this was their chance to show they belonged. Just barely, that's what they did.

Michigan regrouped and recouped with the type of grinding effort it always takes to beat Michigan State. And after the Wolverines escaped with a 58-57 victory Sunday, it again was clear why both teams will be wildly unpredictable at tournament time — capable of a run, capable of being run down.

A Big Ten championship still is possible for Michigan and Michigan State, but now that they're mired in a four-way tie for second, two games behind Indiana, it isn't likely. What we saw in a riveting clash in a far-louder-than-normal Crisler Center was further evidence these teams will go as far as their star guards take them.

Making a statement

Trey Burke was spectacular, scoring 21 and swiping the ball from Keith Appling and driving for a dunk that broke a 56-56 tie with 22 seconds left. When he's very good, Michigan is very, very good. And when freshman Gary Harris is very good, Michigan State is very, very dangerous.

The difference is, the Spartans (22-7) have a bruising inside game, the deciding factor in that 23-point stomping last month. The Wolverines (24-5) need help from their interior defense, and in a feisty gutcheck, they got it.

What's the well-worn adage — if you live by the 3-pointer, you'll expire by the 3-pointer? Might need some updating, because astonishingly, Michigan was 0-for-12 and pulled out a huge victory. Michigan State still dominated in rebounding (44-29) and wiped out a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes, but turned the ball over 18 times. And when big Derrick Nix rumbled through the lane, he generally was turned away, finishing with seven points and six turnovers.

"People were saying we were a really soft team, but we were a lot tougher this game," said freshman Mitch McGary, who powered for 11 points. "We wanted to make a statement. We gave 200 percent on defense and got stops when we needed to."

They got the final two crucial ones, first when Burke picked Appling clean, then when Burke hawked Harris as the final seconds ticked away, forcing an errant pass. Afterward, John Beilein looked like a man who saw glimmers of the principles he'd been preaching, while Tom Izzo looked frustrated, but far, far from defeated. No doubt, Appling must play better and so must Nix, but Michigan made it difficult.

The Wolverines drew several charging fouls, and while the Spartans didn't like the calls, this victory was well-earned. Michigan actually ended up with more fouls (17-15), the type of aggression Beilein had been craving.

"We've had some pretty wins where we did everything right and the ball went in, but this was all about grit," Beilein said. "We talked about responding after adversity, and we haven't had a lot of adversity this season. We needed something like this."

The large lump of adversity was the crushing loss at last-place Penn State. Coming into this contest, Michigan had only one victory against the other members of the Big Ten's big five, an overtime triumph against Ohio State. Now Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are jumbled together, and the race could be settled Tuesday night when the Hoosiers — who clinched at least a share of the title Sunday — host the Buckeyes.

Spartans will regroup

Michigan plays at Purdue and closes the regular season at home Sunday against Indiana. Michigan State has home games against Wisconsin and Northwestern and still is sitting in fairly decent shape. Well, considering the Spartans have lost three in a row during a nasty stretch of the schedule.

No one expected Michigan State to repeat its 75-52 pasting of Michigan, and in fact, this is precisely the type of game these teams have played at Crisler lately. Michigan also won by a point here last season, and has beaten Michigan State four of the past six meetings overall.

"We did some real good things, but unfortunately, good isn't good enough in this league," Izzo said. "And good isn't even close to good enough when you're on the road. We're gonna have to lick our wounds and regroup."

The Spartans regrouped in the closing minutes, until the fateful frantic finish. Harris scored 16 points and Adreian Payne continued his rapid rise with 17. But Michigan's defense, with Jordan Morgan banging away at Nix, didn't buckle, holding Michigan State to 35.6 percent shooting.

This is what true rivals are supposed to do, exchange body blows in the most-intense environment imaginable. This was brutally intense — if not artistically awe-inspiring — and it showed what the Wolverines and Spartans are still capable of, as long as they fix a few flaws and get back to flexing.

Michigan guard Trey Burke, center, and Michigan State forward Derrick Nix, left, react to the final buzzer of a 58-57 Michigan victory Sunday. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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