Commentary

Basking in glow of three in a row

Another win over rival Spartans puts spark back into somewhat dormant rivalry

Updated: January 18, 2012, 3:52 PM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Relief.

It's what sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. felt when the final buzzer rang and the No. 19 Michigan basketball team had beaten No. 9 Michigan State, 60-59.

Freshman point guard Trey Burke felt happiness, not for himself, but for his seniors, Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, who have been on the other side of this game quite often during their careers.

[+] EnlargeTim Hardaway Jr.
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireTim Hardaway Jr. is a rare Wolverine: He has never lost to Michigan State.
And Douglass, who said Monday that the Wolverines' sweep of the Spartans last season means little if they can't do it again this season, felt as though his team had grown.

It was a mixed bag of emotions for the Michigan basketball team. None of which has been felt by the Wolverines after this instate rivalry game over the past decade or so.

"I remember talking with [former Michigan basketball player] Dugan Fife and him telling me how great his record was against Michigan State," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "I just said, 'Wow, I never knew it was like that.' "

The Wolverines' three-straight wins over their instate rival is the longest winning stretch since Michigan won five straight from 1996-98. At that point, most current members of the team were too young even to play basketball.

"If you look at the last 10 or 12 years, it hasn't been much of a rivalry, they've been beating us pretty well," Beilein said. "Our thing is we're trying to win a Big Ten Championship. Michigan State is so good, and I admire what they do so much."

But Beilein might have been the only one who felt admiration after the game.

For so long, Michigan players have walked off the court feeling disappointed, feeling like the little brother. So the team reveled in its moment at half court and hugged one another as they kept looking up at the scoreboard.

It made sense that the student section stayed packed and the music played on even after the team left for the locker room. The joy spilled out of the arena, after fans were forced to exit the Crisler Center.

Colin King, one of sophomore guard Evan Smotrycz's fans (he dresses up as a lobster and with three friends calls the group Smotrycz's lobstryczes), was fist pumping and screaming as he walked into the snow. He was still cheering for his favorite player, even though Smotrycz didn't even have a very good game.

"Doesn't matter, the team won," he said. "The team, the team. ... You saw it here, Michigan basketball is back."

It's what most people felt -- that it was a tipping point in the scale for the instate rivalry, even if coaches and players felt too hesitant to say that. After all, they know they have a date in East Lansing in less than a month.

But what players would say was that the win was an answer to what people said had been a Wolverine fluke last season. Three straight felt good, and new, to every member of the Michigan basketball team. Eventually, players just smiled when asked about what this game really meant.

And whether they had words for it or not, everyone saw that this was big.

"This is simple," Beilein said as he was asked at the postgame news conference about the rivalry. "If it means so much to so many people, then it means a lot to me."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @chanteljennings.