In my first career varsity basketball game as a junior in high school I turned the ball over on a five second viloation in the back court with less than a minute left. We were up by one point at the time, and my turnover gave the other team the ball and a chance to win, which they did. I was crushed. I felt horrible that I had let my team down, and I wanted to go anywhere but the locker room. However, I walked there anyway, and with my head down I waited for the coach to rip me apart for costing the team a game we could have easily won.
He was surprisingly calm as we all found a seat in the visitors locker room. I say surprising because he was not a man who held back his emotions -- especially anger. He looked me square in the eyes when he addressed the team and told us that one play doesn't lose a basketball game.
It didn't make me feel any less terrible at the time, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how right he was. Close wins and losses are built on hundreds of little moments. All the smart plays, precise execution, and lucky breaks in the first 98% of the game put you in the position to win at the end, and the missteps, forced shots, and bad bounces keep you in a position to lose. One play does not a win or loss make.
The same can be said of Michigan's win over Minnesota tonight. Do the Wolverines squeak out a victory in the end if Tim Hardaway Jr doesn't go all NBA Jam "HE'S ON FIRE!" to open the game? What if Darius Morris doesn't find a way to continually get into the lane and make shots against the biggest team he will face all year? Could they pull out a win if Stu Douglass doesn't pour in four 3pt shots?
No, this win was about all the good and the bad that happened in the first thirty-eight minutes and eight seconds. All the good and the bad combined to set the game up for a down to the wire showdown, and despite a double digit lead at one point in the first half and a significant size disadvantage, the Wolverines came out of a timeout down one with the ball and a chance to take a lead they desperately needed.
One minute and fifty-two seconds later, they walked out of The Barn winners thanks in large part to two plays.
- With the shot clock winding down and Darius Morris swallowed up in the paint by multiple defenders, Zack Novak caught a kick out pass and released a long three just before the shot clock expired. Nothing but net. Wolverines up, 64-62.
- Next Minnesota possession after a missed shot and timeout, the Gophers tried to pound the ball inside to the seven foot Ralph Sampson III. Sampson was guarded by none other than little Zack Novak, who slipped around him to tip the entry pass, corral it, and then throw a picture perfect lead pass down the floor to Darius Morris who got a lay-up and the foul. After the free throw the score was 67-62, and it was all free throws from there on out.
Most of the discussion lately has been focused on this team's chances of getting an at large bid in the NCAA tournament. The last three games have been very hard and haven't done much to help the cause. A near upset of Illinois that fell only as short as Stu Douglass' last second heave; an overtime win in an absolute must-win game at Iowa; and a heart wrenching loss to Wisconsin (BACKBOARD, ARGH!). Losses to Illinois and Wisconsin were expected, and frankly, able to be overcome. However, there was no doubt coming in to today's game that Minnesota (and MSU for that matter, but one game at a time) was a must win.
In the prior two games, Zack Novak -- a starter, captain, and one of the oldest members of the team -- hadn't hit a shot from the floor (I know this because the announcers didn't spare any chance to mention it). Today, with this team backed against the wall, Novak grabbed five rebounds, dished out three assists, notched one helluva steal, and hit two 3pt shots for six points. You won't find much of a indication of it in that stat line, or much of a mention of it in the ESPN post game recap (a "key" three pointer and a late steal don't do it justice) but what Novak did was make the two biggest plays of the game on back to back possessions with under two minutes left. He was responsible for an eight point swing in the score and changed the game from a down to the wire nail-biter to a free throw contest. To quote one of my favorite internet memes of the past few monts, "he put the team on his back, dawg."
We spend a lot of time thinking about the future with this team. The trio of Morris, Hardaway Jr., and Morgan are young and exciting while the two oldest players are just role players who are undersized -- and juniors to boot. The future looks bright for the Wolverine basketball team for the first time that I can remember. The star power is there, but everyone who knows basketball knows that if you want to win big and win consistently, you need someone like Zack Novak doing the little things. Going forward I am confident in the ability of guys like Morris, Hardaway Jr., and Morgan to carry the team for long stretches, handle the scoring load, and do all the big things you need from your stars. The question will be, who steps up and does the little things, and who comes out of nowhere to make the kind of plays that Zack Novak is making for this team right now.
Like my coach said all those years ago, one or two plays don't lose a game. But if they are the right two plays they just might win it. He may not be flashy, but as he showed again tonight, Zack Novak makes the right plays.