Sunday, December 07, 2008

First Rays of a New Rising Sun

The first thing that struck me at the game yesterday was the number of people in Duke gear at Crisler, as well as the number of people in Maryland or UNC gear. Hate knows no bounds I suppose.

We made our way to the seats and we began assessing our chances. I had said one chance in one hundred when I bought the tickets in October, but that one chance was worth it. When Michigan beat UCLA, that number jumped up a little, maybe one chance in ten, but that fell a little bit when Coach Beilein's team lost to Duke the next night at Madison Square Garden. All we wanted was for Michigan to stay close for a while, maybe make Duke play from behind a little, and let the chips fall where they may. What we got was somewhat more remarkable.

Take a look at the game flow and you can see that it never really was a game that either team seized control of at any point until very very late. But this game was also rare in that its signature moment ended up being the tipping point. Let us step back for a moment to see how we got there.

I've only seen Michigan a couple of times under Coach Beilein, and I liked the idea of what they were trying to do, and against UCLA, I felt that it was coming together, that maybe this could be the end of the drought in the Big Dance, and at the very least, maybe something that would be worth watching through the long winter. I was also still getting to know this team. I knew Manny Harris was special and I was excited to see DeShawn Sims inserted in to the starting line-up, but my knowledge of the Zack Attack (Novak and Gibson) and Kelvin Grady's stealth magic would only present itself during the course of the game.

Duke had just beaten a very good Purdue team in West Lafayette on Wednesday, so it was going to need a pretty much perfect game to beat them, I thought. The key would be simple, if Duke's threes didn't fall, Michigan had a chance.

I've always been convinced that opposing teams struggle to shoot at the tunnel end of Crisler, because it's a weird shooting background, and Duke's 2-for-17 shooting in the first half may have laid testament to my theory. But there we were at halftime and Michigan was up by two points. I was hesitant, but I wanted to believe.

The moment was simple though, with about nine minutes left in the second half, Duke had just taken a three point lead and it looked like Michigan was going to be forced to play catch-up for the rest of the game. All of their hustle, diving for loose balls, keeping rebounds alive, bouncing balls off Duke players to get the ball back out of bounds, it was going to be too little to get the win. But then Michigan set up their offense on their end of the floor, having beaten the Duke press, and found Zack Novak in the corner for a wide open three. Tied at 53, Greg Paulus missed a three, DeShawn Sims who looked like a man possessed grabbed the board, launched a beautiful pass down the floor and seven seconds later, Novak, again, in the corner, another three, and Duke took a time out. Crisler was loud, it was Yost loud. (Props to the Maize Rage for being there an hour before the game and for committing to the team wholeheartedly. Well done ladies and gentlemen.) The entire arena believed it could be done and sure enough, Michigan never trailed again.

It was not a cakewalk the rest of the way, it seemed like every time that the Crisler crowd was ready to blow the roof off the building, Duke would hit a big shot and quiet the crowd. But the boys never let it bother them, they counter-punched every time. They hit their free throws down the stretch, and soon enough, the court was stormed, the plaudits came in, and Michigan basketball signaled that it may, in fact, be back.

It will take some time to figure out if this game really means something. If Michigan falls down in the Big Ten season, then it's just a high point in another wandering year. But for now, I will prefer to think of this as Hendrix stated, as the first rays of a new rising sun, and hopefully one that will shine for a nice long day.

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