ANN ARBOR — Forget what was supposed to happen. Those guys who vote the college polls have never worn a Michigan uniform, never laced up Michigan State sneakers, never stood at center court with their mouths hanging open, gulping for air, sweating from sheer nerves and half-deaf from the noise, up to their nostrils in the venom that boils in the meanest rivalry in the state. Wolverines versus Spartans.
Forget all that blabbering before it started: Michigan guard Antoine Joubert boasting, “We’re not going to lose this one.” The “experts” saying a No. 7 team should beat a No. 19 team. The Michigan fans vowing to make life miserable for the Spartans in Crisler Arena — to make up for UM’s earlier loss in the unfriendly confines out at East Lansing.
Forget it all. Because college basketball is still a game where emotion is the oxygen of victory, and with emotion anything can happen, and it happened again Thursday night.
Wolverines vs. Spartans.
Take it from 43-42, Michigan, a few minutes into the second half. Until that point, the pace had been furious, the progress minimal. The Spartans were putting up shots as if the ball were due to explode any second. The Wolverines were matching them — not as gracefully, but they were staying with it. The two teams were like soldiers under barbed wire. Inch by inch. Nobody was running away.
And then guard Scott Skiles — the Spartan’s pride and poison — stole the ball and flipped it to Darryl Johnson for a lay-up. And then he did it again. And then he did it again. Six straight points. Once he tossed the ball over his head backwards, and it still found the mark. And suddenly what was not supposed to happen was happening. Michigan State was pulling away.
Going green and white. The gap was growing
What was close was suddenly far. Michigan tripped over itself. Michigan State got easy baskets. Bill Frieder screamed. Jud Heathcote applauded.
When the buzzer sounded it was a 15-point win by the Spartans, 74-59, a trouncing by most folks’ standards, and considering Michigan was supposed to be a better team, perhaps it was worse than that.
The Wolverines knew what they needed to do. They simply did not do it. Roy Tarpley should have dominated the center, which was a weak spot of the Spartans’ lineup. He did not. Double- and triple-teaming left him with but two rebounds in the second half.
Joubert was, for the most part, ineffective. Forward Richard Rellford was a stone. The team’s concentration wavered, which is inexcusable in a game such as this.
But enough on why the game was lost. Here is why the game was won: Skiles and Johnson.
We will not soon see another performance like Skiles.’ Here was a kid with a court date in the morning to determine a prison sentence, playing basketball as if it were the last night of his life. Although his shooting numbers were not overly impressive (6-16, 20 points) it was impossible to watch this game and not keep coming back to him. He was everywhere, slapping the ball away, making passes, making steals.
Throughout the game, he wore the fire-eyed look of an army cadet in some barroom fistfight. His hair is short. His skin is almost ghostly white. Perfect for haunting. And his measure of revenge for all that has happened this year may lie mostly in the two games against Michigan, because he starred in both, and he left both grinning.
Johnson, meanwhile, played simply marvelous basketball (12-19, 26 points, eight assists). He put the ball in from angles that challenged the imagination. He always seemed to be catching a pass and laying it in. He was the only one out there who exceeded expectations. And largely because of him, the sell- out crowd was moving to the parking lots before the thing was officially over.
Out of reach. Green and white amaizes the Blue
In the locker room afterwards, Frieder — who had been livid at points during the contest, screaming at his team and slamming towels to the floor —
shut off his players from the media for the rest of the year. Too little, too late.
They were taken apart by their own ineptitude, and the tandem of Skiles and Johnson.
And across the hall those two were celebrating. They had knocked Michigan out of first place in the Big Ten — and did it in the Wolverines’ backyard.
For a final insult, Skiles had driven the lane with one second left, made a lay-up and got fouled. That about said it all.
Forget what was supposed to happen. Paint the state green and white this morning.
Big Game over.