Ann Arbor — To hear Trey Burke talk, he was just doing his job.
Watching him do his job, though, it's impossible not to see just how much the sophomore point guard means to his team — surely more than any player in college basketball — a point driven home Sunday as Michigan's good-hands man thwarted archrival Michigan State.
The final score was 58-57 in favor of the Wolverines, but only after Burke stepped in and stole a game the Spartans were threatening to take for themselves, having erased a 10-point in the final 4-1/2 minutes to put the sellout crowd of 12,693 at Crisler Center on the edge of their seats.
But with the game tied at 56 with 23 seconds left, in stepped Burke, literally and figuratively, swiping the ball from Michigan State's Keith Appling near midcourt and racing in for a breakaway dunk.
That proved to be the winning basket, but only after another steal from Burke, intercepting a pass from Gary Harris intended for Appling in front of the Michigan State bench as the Spartans tried to run a play to win the game in the final 5 seconds.
Burke, who finished with five steals and a game-high 21 points and eight assists, called the first theft the best of his college career. But he acknowledged the second one isn't far behind. And that emphatic, smiling two-handed slap he gave the floor late Sunday afternoon, urging his teammates to follow suit? Well, that wasn't meant to "mock" his rival, he insisted, as much as it was to remind the Wolverines what it would take — intensity, enthusiasm, and defense — to beat them.
"I just felt like it was my job to make a play for this team," Burke said after a performance that surely bolstered his case for national player of the year honors. "I've had a lot of those type of steals, but our team needed that the most at that time. Who knows what would've happened if I hadn't got that steal? Maybe we'd be crushed here, if they hit a game-winning shot."
Maybe? No, certainly, they'd have been crushed. Because this game was about more than just keeping alive hopes for a share of the Big Ten title, which Michigan admittedly did Sunday, even as they handed Indiana a two-game cushion on the rest of the league with two games to play.
Coming off what Burke himself described as a "crushing" loss at Penn State earlier in the week — not to mention a losing record (3-4) in February — this was a huge statement game for the Wolverines.
Plenty will be said about what it means for Michigan State now, nursing its first three-game losing streak in two years after committing 18 turnovers and shooting 36 percent from the field Sunday.
Branden Dawson was a nonfactor again, while Travis Trice was benched for making a mess of things just before halftime. And the task of rehabbing Appling's shot confidence — he has missed his last 18 3-point attempts — probably gets tougher after the way this game ended, though Tom Izzo was quick to say afterward that "I'm really not worried" about his point guard's psyche.
Still, Izzo did acknowledge he "wasn't sure where Appling was (mentally)" after his late turnover, and that was part of the reason Harris — not Appling — got the inbounds pass to start the final play.
Whatever the case, it was Michigan's season that seemed to be hanging in the balance coming in. And that's why Burke and seniors Corey Person and Josh Bartelstein called a players-only meeting Thursday. For more than 90 minutes — hey, they were at the Pizza House, Burke admitted with a laugh — the players talked about what was wrong and what needed to be done to right the ship.
"We felt like, you know, we need to stop having meetings," Burke said. "We need to have this one last meeting and really just hold each other accountable. Just playing with more toughness and more intensity. We knew that Michigan basketball, a lot of people are saying that we're not tough, that we're soft.
"But tonight we didn't look that way. And I think from here on out, we've all made a vow that we're gonna come out and play with toughness for 40 minutes."
They did that Sunday, for the most part, though they still got bullied on the boards, as Michigan State grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. Michigan also didn't hit a 3-pointer, which hasn't happened to one of Beilein's teams since he was coaching Canisius back in 1995.
But they played better post defense — a healthier Jordan Morgan helped — and they were far less passive than they were in East Lansing a few weeks ago. And while you can debate a flop or two that drew charging fouls, Michigan's young team learned an important lesson Sunday: Good things tend to happen if you're willing to put yourself in harm's way.
Of course, better things happen when a player like Burke is able to step in at the end.
"I just kept telling the guys, 'We have to find a way to win this game,'" he said. "And we did."
Michigan point guard Trey Burke celebrates after his fifth steal sealed the Wolverines’ victory, avenging a loss to Michigan State last month. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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