When David Merritt came up lame midway through the second half you winced sympathetic in pain as he tried to put pressure on his leg, and then winced some more when he tried to walk on it. The pain he felt in his knee was so evident it seemed to have a direct line to the television camera, and CBS focused in on this gritty over-achiever, remarking what a shame it was that his day looked over.
Emotionally, it was the type of shot that can fold even the best of teams. Your character guy in a heap of pain limping off the court in a manner no one can call dignified. It was certainly the type of event that would crush every Michigan team during Tommy Amaker's tenure and was the type of event that should have robbed this young team of its focus when everything seemed to be going right. There he was, alone, in pain, while everyone in Crisler, including his teammates, watched
And then, out of a moment of agony, something wonderful happened.
Seeing his friend in pain, Ekpe Udoh, took a short break from blocking every shot within a five foot perimeter of his body, hurried over to lend Merritt his are for support. When his an arm wasn't sufficient he gave Merritt his legs, too. Udoh lifted Merritt off the ground as though he weighed nothing, and carried his injured friend to Michigan's trainers before returning to the floor, pointing out assignments and readying himself for the whistle. As if nothing had happened. As if they'd prepared for this in every practice leading up to that moment. It wasn't a shot. It wasn't a bump in the road. It was what he knew he had to do, and at that moment his friend was weightless.
In the box score, that moment doesn't show up. It's not a highlight in the way a dunk or an off balance three pointer is. It doesn't shift the possession arrow or do anything that affects the scoreboard.
But it can redefine an entire season.
Until Sunday's game, Michigan had not played a complete basketball game against a worthy opponent since Daniel Horton score 50 against Illinois. Two years ago. Even in the midst of a two game winning streak, Michigan could not claim it had provided a full 40 minutes of play in any contest this season. Yet, there they were, toe to toe with a team that had crushed them earlier in the season and was the national runner-up the year before. For the record, Michigan did not play an Ohio State team asleep at the wheel. To the contrary, they beat a team who shot 68% in the first half and finished at 48%. They prevented the Buckeyes from running their offense in the second half and answered every Ohio State basket or run with one of their own. Both teams could have won the game, but it was Michigan that went out and won it.
Udoh's simple gesture may not have been more than a blip in the game but it was a fog horn in a crowded room for those, including myself, who still wondered about the mental makeup of this team. Michigan played a complete game. They cycled the ball across the top of the arc until a lane opened or a free man was found. Every one on the team contributed in some facet or another. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, limited to 13 total points against OSU in their first match up struck for 49. Udoh was a presence in the lanes, blocking 6 shots and collecting 4 steals with his condor-like wing span. Kelvin Grady/David Merritt/CJ Lee played in control and ran
the game efficiently and smartly. Zach Gibson contributed on both ends as well, most notably taking yet another charge when OSU appeared to be gaining momentum, something he seems to be able to do with regularity.
For the first time this year, Michigan reacted instantly and positively to adversity. They seemed to gather strength from the knowledge their friend would not finish the game with them. They took their time. They played their game. They did what they'd been trained to do. And they finished what they started.
This brings us back to Merritt who appears, on the outside at least, to be a living microcosm of this year's team. Unheralded. Undertalented. Prone to concentration lapses. But constantly working to prove he belongs and improving with every minute of game time. During the Iowa game he left his man unattended to give meaningless help on a cutter, which resulted in his man burying a three and nearly bringing Iowa back from the brink. Over the next two minutes he and Kelvin Grady executed Beilein's offense to a tee, including running one of the prettiest give-and-go's you will ever see between two guys who stacked on top of one another can barely reach the rim.
And so it was on Sunday, with Merritt tossing the errant pass or Michigan launching a hasty, guarded three, and seconds later finding an open man for an uncontested layup or open shot. As all tales evolve, so will the basketball team's. Though Merritt sums things up today, the final chapters will be written by the team as a whole. It was apparent from Sunday's game Michigan will go only as far as the team is willing to go together.
While it is improbable to expect a string of continued wins to close out the season, Michigan will be competitive in every game left on its slate. If they continue to play as they did against Ohio State, beating them for the first time since 2004, they have a legitimate shot at the conference tournament.
However, such discussions are for future games, when and if the merit consideration. What we saw on Sunday was a group of young men come together as a team, as friends and brothers, and play as a unit. We saw, for the first time, a team that was unfazed by adversity.
More importantly, we saw a group that will play for and with each other, and if necessary, carry each other to victory.
All photos courtesy: KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/DFP