EAST LANSING — The flag. He wanted the flag. Steve Smith was swimming in a sea of fans, TV cameras, beautiful noise all over the Breslin Center hardwood floor. He had done it. Pulled a dream night out of his shooting pocket, and delivered the win that people here fantasize about. Now he wanted the Spartan flag.

“Take it! Take it!” screamed a student. He grabbed hold and waved it high, a green-and-white beacon above a delirious army. What a moment! The only surprise was that he didn’t heave it toward the basket. Five bucks says it would have swished.

They had done it! The Spartans had beaten Michigan, the defending national champ, their arch-rival, the monkey on their backs. And Smith was the star soldier. Did you watch him during that second half Thursday night, bouncing, flopping, heaving that rock? Up and down the court he ran, as if late for his destiny, his jersey riding up his lean body, bagging around the waist, hanging wet with sweat, the way a good jersey will when you’re really into the game.

And was he into the game? Hell. He was the game. For one glorious eight-minute stretch, Steve Smith was one with the basketball. He wanted it to go in, it went in. Sideways jumpers from ridiculous angles. Top-of-the-key bombs that could have kissed heaven. Three-pointers from across the street. Swish, baby. Don’t even think about it. It was one of those rare sports moments when all the opposing players can do is stand there, earthbound, mouths hanging open.

“We tried to defend him,” said a glum Steve Fisher, the U-M coach, after Smith’s 36 points led the Spartans to a 78-70 victory and a solo spot atop the Big Ten. “Wilt Chamberlain could have been on him and he would have made it.”

Wilt Chamberlain? A mission to accomplish

Well. That’s some compliment. But then, that was some performance. And talk about timing! Senior guard Kirk Manns was out of the lineup with a stress fracture. Rumeal Robinson, the U-M star who had beaten MSU earlier in the year with a last- second shot, was threatening to stick it to the green once more before he graduated.

Let’s face it. Beating Michigan rarely meant as much as it did to MSU Thursday, if only to prove this new era — new building, good recruiting class, crack at the Big Ten title — was for real.

And Smith delivered. Man, how he delivered. The kid from Detroit’s Pershing High played as if he built the court himself. Thirty-six points? Five three-pointers? Nine rebounds?

Actually, if Chamberlain wasn’t busy. . . .

“Did you feel unstoppable tonight?” Smith was asked in the press room afterward.

He shook his lanky 6-foot-6 frame. “Just a little bit,” he said.

Yeah. And Al Capone was just a little bit naughty. The fact is, with 13:15 left in the game, Smith began a run that would have left Isiah Thomas clapping in admiration. An 18-footer from the top of the key. Bang! A six-foot turnaround. Bang! A lay-up. A three-point bomb. Another three-point bomb. An 18- foot turnaround in which he barely looked at the rim. Bang! Bang! With each basket he pumped blood through the very aorta of Spartan Spirit. The place went nuts. Never mind the inevitable Michigan last-minute comeback. Smith had put it out of reach.

And when the buzzer sounded, he waved that flag as if he had just stormed the beach at Normandy. “Did you have a personal mission tonight?” he was asked.

“Well, I thought about something I heard, that Rumeal and Terry (Mills) had never lost to us in all their time at Michigan. That really got to me. I didn’t sleep well last night thinking about it.”

“Will you sleep tonight?”

He laughed. “Not too much.” And a smile from Jud

He had plenty of company. Spartans fans may be too happy for slumber. After all, the team is now 23-5, a lock for a good seeding in the NCAA Tournament and a good bet to win the conference, something it hasn’t done in more than a decade.

“For all those who say I never smile,” announced Jud Heathcote, the longtime Spartans coach. . . .

And then he smiled. Five seconds’ worth. I counted it. Really. Ear to ear.

Why not? This team continues to delight him. It continues to rise above the injuries to star players. It continues to sparkle on defense (as it did in the final minutes Thursday, making the Wolverines look as if their hands were buttered).

For such a long time, the Spartans have squirmed under the weight of U-M’s excellent reputation. It had been a long time, in fact, since a Michigan-Michigan State game even meant anything.

It meant something Thursday night. And it was summed up by a local kid who couldn’t miss, riding his school mates’ shoulders, waving a flag that said you can’t keep a good program down forever.

“What would you compare Steve’s performance to tonight?” Heathcote was asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe . . . perfection?”

And you want to hear something else?

Smith is only a junior.

Now Jud is really smiling.

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