Just a great night for a Blue breakthrough

EAST LANSING – The door had a simple piece of paper taped on it – “Michigan” – but the noise was so loud from the other side, the paper threatened to flap off and fly away.

“That was crazy!” Darius Morris gushed when he exited the visitors’ locker room, ears still ringing from the shouting, screeching and most spirited version of “The Victors” ever sung in the Breslin Center.

How long was the drought? Over 14 years? The Wolverines basketball team traditionally goes to East Lansing the way a lamb goes to the slaughterhouse. They hadn’t won up here since last century.

“We’re tired of hearing it,” said Zack Novak.

Consider it silenced. On a night that was supposed to be about Michigan State getting back on track, here came a little maize-and-blue truck to knock the green right back to the canvass.

How did it happen? How did a 1-6 Big Ten team knock off a traditional national powerhouse and its archrival? Well, for starters, Michigan shot the ball well. Michigan rebounded the ball well. Michigan kept its poise and never lost a second-half lead – despite the average age of the Wolverine team being “pre-shaving.”

Novak was coolest of them all. The junior guard (an old man on this squad) hit six out of nine shots, and all six were three-pointers. He seemed to toss them up without blinking. The kid looks like a younger, sweatier Matthew Stafford, he’s broad in the waist for a hoop star, almost stout, he doesn’t look like he can do what he does – but, man, did he do it Thursday night. Nineteen points, six rebounds, two assists.

“Indescribable,” Novak said. “We haven’t won here since the ’90s? I was in first grade. … Sweet!”

Fight to the finish

Novak’s shooting helped push Michigan to double-digit leads – to the silent shock of Spartan fans. But Novak’s final basket came with 7:17 left, giving Michigan a 55-42 lead. U-M would only score six points – total! – the rest of the way.

And still win.

Thank Morris and Stu Douglass for that. Morris, the sophomore point guard, steadied his team all night by bringing the ball calmly across the midline almost every possession – despite a furious MSU comeback. “I had to keep a poker face,” Morris admitted. “I can’t be out there panicking. I kept saying, ‘We got this.'”

It was close. MSU scrapped and clawed and shrunk a 14-point deficit to a one-basket game with 1:50 left. But the Spartans then missed four straight three-point attempts – Keith Appling tried, Draymond Green tried, Kalin Lucas tried, and Appling tried again.

Michigan got one basket. A three-pointer with 25 seconds left – from Douglass, a reserve (“Biggest shot of my life.”) And just as Morris said. They got this.

Long time coming

There is no understating the win for U-M. Sure, the Wolverines (12-9) are unlikely to even make the NCAA tournament. But certain games grow you up, and beating the local legends, even if they’re in a down stretch, will elevate the confidence and the reputation of hoops in Ann Arbor. Novak admitted the only Wolverine he ever met who beat the Spartans in East Lansing was Travis Conlan, who’s now on the staff.

The year: 1997.

Meanwhile, how bad is this for the Spartans (12-8)? Tom Izzo spoke in quiet, measured tones after the defeat. His team, traditionally a well-oiled machine, looked like a collection of auto parts thrown down the court. Let’s try a crankshaft. Let’s try a steering wheel. Does anything work? The Spartans not only missed easy shots, they sometimes got beat to the boards – a no-no in Spartanland – and they lacked rhythm in their first game since Korie Lucious was dismissed.

“They played better than us,” Izzo said.

That hurts him to no end. He knows his talent and experience should trump Michigan’s. But on this night, the Wolverines had the heart – and the shooting touch.

“It’s my job to pull us out of the gutter,” Izzo said.

Meanwhile, whose job is it to bring the Wolverines down to earth? Last I looked, they were flying out of that visitors’ locker room, the piece of paper that read “Michigan” flapping in their breeze.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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