By Todd Jones
January 13, 2013
Trey Burke (3) battled with Ohio State's Aaron Craft (left) all day in Columbus.
Mike Munden/AP

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The shot looked pure, launched by a hometown kid hell-bent on showing the Ohio State crowd that he should have been one of its beloved Buckeyes.

Trey Burke's rainbow appeared certain to bring his Michigan Wolverines all the way back from 21 points down to a victory that would propel the school to its first No. 1 ranking in 21 years.

"I thought it was going in," said Burke, born and raised in Columbus, but not offered a scholarship by Ohio State.

Aaron Craft, the junkyard dog defender beaten by Burke's step-back three-pointer, figured it was going in, too.

"It was a great shot," the Ohio State point guard said.

The ball banged off one side of the rim and banged off the other.

"It was half-way down," said Michigan coach John Beilein.

Destiny met denial, and the ball clanged out with 16 seconds remaining, with Ohio State up two points.

The No. 15 Buckeyes, ravenous for a signature win this season, subsequently held on with four clutch free throws, and No. 2 Michigan -- the nation's final undefeated team -- swallowed a bitter 56-53 loss.

And yet there was a wizard's glint in Beilein's eyes after his team fell to 16-1, one day following North Carolina State's upset of top-ranked Duke.

"This is terrific for us," said Beilein, in his sixth season of rebuilding Michigan. "Every coach will tell you that. When is the last team that didn't lose? It doesn't happen. The prosperous ones get better from it."

So here we are in mid-January and already the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, coached by Bob Knight in those ugly plaid jackets, can breathe easily about remaining the last men's team to finish a season undefeated.

"That speaks to the parity across the board in college basketball in terms of how difficult it is day in and day out," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Surges of success and failure can ebb and flow in maddening manner within one 40-minute game, especially in the alley-fight known as the Big Ten, which has six teams in the Top 25, including four in the top 10.

On Saturday, No. 8 Minnesota trailed by 23 at halftime before losing 88-81 at No. 5 Indiana, and No. 12 Illinois found itself down 20 at the half before limping home from Wisconsin with a 74-51 loss.

One week earlier, Illinois plastered a 74-55 loss onto proud Ohio State.

And those same Buckeyes blitzed Michigan on Sunday with a 26-3 run in the first half only to later find themselves clinging by a fingertip as Burke's potential game-winning three sailed through Value City Arena.

The shot looked certain to bury an Ohio State team that had been outscored 42-23 since holding a 21-point lead.

"We lost our composure there momentarily," said Matta, who has three starters back from last year's Final Four team.

Ohio State, now 13-3, founds its legs in the final six minutes against the younger Wolverines, and the Buckeyes' experience showed early when they nearly blew the visitors back to Ann Arbor with an F5 tornado of a start.

Michigan rolled into town with a record tied for the school's best start ever, set in 1985-86, the last season before college basketball adopted the three-point line. The Wolverines were outscoring opponents by 22 points a game, and their 16-game winning streak was the best in Beilein's 35-year coaching career.

Duke's loss Saturday put Michigan on the precipice of its best ranking since the Fab Five's baggy shorts flapped and sugar-daddy booster Ed Martin was alive.

The Wolverines, however, hadn't had a road test of this ilk all season, and four of their seven players who played 11 or more minutes against Ohio State were freshmen.

Burke, a sophomore lauded as one of the nation's top players, began the game with a dagger three, but the Wolverines fell like a sand castle during high tide in the next 13 minutes.

Michigan rushed shots, handled the ball as if it was radioactive, and trailed 29-8.

Ohio State was playing with a purpose. The Buckeyes began the season in the top five, but slipped after losing all three of their games against ranked opponents.

Horrible shooting scarred those defeats to Duke, Kansas and Illinois. The Buckeyes fixed that in the first half by forcing the Wolverines into nine turnovers, leading to transition hoops that sent the sellout crowd of 18,809 into a full hate-all-things-Michigan frenzy.

Ohio State, which has won more games than any other Big Ten team since Matta arrived in 2004, wanted to remind everyone of its league dominance, particularly over Michigan. The Buckeyes entered yesterday's game having won seven of the past eight and 16 of 19 in the series, including two of three last season.

The Buckeyes added incentive in not allowing the young-and-hyped Wolverines from climbing atop the polls.

"There's always satisfaction in denying Michigan the number one spot in the country," said senior forward Evan Ravenel.

Craft, in particular, played with a boulder on his shoulder, especially at the game's start.

Burke, a star at Northland High School in Columbus and the Big Ten freshman of the year last season, received much of the pre-game attention because of his second return home in maize-and-blue.

The morning of the game had the main sports story in the Columbus Dispatch asking why Ohio State -- with Craft and sophomore Shannon Scott as point guard -- hadn't signed Burke, who originally committed to Penn State.

Matta sensed fired crackling in Craft before tipoff.

"I didn't say a lot to him," Matta said. "I knew he was going to play at a level he needed to play."

Craft took the ball to the basket with a bull's intention early on, and the junior from Findlay, Ohio defended Burke throughout with his usual tenacity.

"Craft is as good (defensively) as I've ever seen," Beilein said.

Burke struggled, making only four of 13 shots and matching his four assists with four turnovers.

The performance had shades of last season's three Ohio State games when Burke had five turnovers in the loss in Columbus, shot 6-for-14 in a win at Ann Arbor and had his worst game of the season -- eight turnovers and five points on 1-of-11 shooting, including 0-for-7 on three-pointers -- in a 22-point Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss.

"He's still learning. He's only a sophomore," said Craft in a condescending tone.

Still, there was Burke, ball in hand, game clock under 20 seconds, the Wolverines down 52-50.

His parents and about 25 friends and family members from Columbus were in the stands.

One was Satch Sullinger, his coach at Northland High.

Sullinger is the father of former Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger, Burke's best friend, who got the best of him twice last season and is now toiling for the Boston Celtics.

Before the game, Burke trotted out of the Michigan layup line to the sideline and received a bear-hug from Satch.

"I love you and I'm proud of you," Satch said in the Wolverine's ear.

"I love you, too, coach," Burke said.

A couple hours later, Satch Sullinger and the entire arena stood as Burke dribbled the ball out front, Craft in his grill.

"I felt he was going for the three," Matta said.

Burke juked free of Craft with a step-back move that showed why he had considered leaving after his freshman year for the NBA Draft.

"That was a big-time move," Matta said. "He got a heck of a look at it."

Burke let the shot fly.

"I thought it was going to go in when I turned around," Craft said.

So did Burke.

In-and-out. No good. The nation's final undefeated team fell 16 seconds later.

"It's adversity at this time of year," Beilein said. "A lot goes through the season. It's a journey. We have to embrace the important point of today."

Ohio State, already humbled this season, knows the fuel drawn from defeat, and the Buckeyes' reward for victory over the nation's No. 2-ranked team is a date next at No. 22 Michigan State on Saturday.

"The worse thing we can do now is rest on our laurels because it doesn't get any easier," Craft said.

Not in the Big Ten, where Michigan's fleeting moment of despair over a lost opportunity is met with a Thursday game at No. 8 Minnesota.

"This hurts a little bit," said junior forward Jordan Morgan, "but we'd rather be No. 1 in March than in January."

Todd Jones is a senior reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.

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