Just when it seemed Michigan State had seized momentum in their showdown against Big Ten rival Michigan on Sunday afternoon, Trey Burke stole it back.
In fact, he did it twice.
Michigan State had rallied from a late 10-point deficit and was in position to either win on its last possession or force overtime until Keith Appling got a little too careless with the ball while checking to see if Tom Izzo wanted a timeout. Burke reached around and poked the ball free, streaked up court and dunked to give Michigan a two-point lead with 22 seconds to go.
After Derrick Nix made one of two free throws to cut the lead in half and Mitch McGarrity missed the front end of a one-and-one, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called timeout with 4.9 seconds remaining. The play Izzo designed was for Gary Harris, but the freshman guard dribbled into a double team, panicked and tried to throw a pass into the corner that Burke stepped in front of to seal a 58-57 victory.
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Burke's two crucial steals came at a critical juncture in Michigan's season. The Wolverines, 20-1 before a stretch of four losses in seven games, needed a victory Sunday to avenge a previous blowout loss against Michigan State and to wash away the taste of last week's humbling upset at the hands last-place Penn State.
Not only did Michigan move into a four-way tie for second place behind Big Ten-leading Indiana as a result of the victory, Burke also bolstered his candidacy for conference and national player of the year. In addition to his two defensive plays in the final minute, he also scored a game-high 21 points on 8 of 17 shooting and dished out eight assists.
If Michigan fans can step off the ledge after Sunday, Michigan State fans may replace them on it.
Since losing a tense, back-and-forth first-place showdown against Indiana on Feb. 19, the Spartans have now also dropped back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Michigan. Neither of those two losses is remotely embarrassing, yet it still adds up to a three-game losing streak for a team that had aspirations of a Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament just two weeks ago.
Whether Michigan State bounces back from its losing streak like Kansas and Louisville did earlier this season will probably depend on Appling's ability to emerge from his slump.
As Harris and Adreian Payne have surged late in the season, Appling has faltered. He shot 3 of 9 from the floor, scored nine points and had five assists on Sunday, and that was easily his best game of Michigan State's three-game losing streak.
The Spartans also need more from Branden Dawson than what he has given them of late, but there's still a lot to like about this team. They may yet have a great March, but Burke ensured it won't start out as planned.
(Thanks, @TyDuffy for the video)
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