- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Keith Appling couldn’t see it coming. He was looking toward the Michigan State bench, trying to receive one last instruction on whether to call a timeout, and he had a split-second lapse. It was all the time Michigan guard Trey Burke needed.
Burke had waited for that moment all game because Appling had protected the ball well until the final 30 seconds. The opening Burke relished appeared, and instinct and experience took over.
Appling started to turn and Burke made his move, a quick flick of his wrist knocking the ball away into Burke’s hands. He led a breakaway dunk and gave Michigan the final points it would score in a 58-57 win over rival Michigan State.
“I knew it at that time, once he got all the way to the side,” Burke said. “Once I got the steal, the crowd was still kind of quiet. I don’t think the crowd knew I had the ball.
“Once I took the first dribble, everyone is like, ‘Ahhhh.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I got this.'"
It was a play he has made repeatedly, one he was conditioned to make as a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Appling may have not known it at the time, but he fell right into Burke’s signature move, a high-risk swipe his father, Benji, taught him when he was a fifth-grader.
At first, Burke wasn’t good at the move, which has no fancy name other than “a steal.” Burke kept shooting the gap only to end up out of the play. As he grew, he started to understand the mechanics of the move and how it could enhance his defense. It turned into a staple, one opposing guards can’t see coming.
“I was very shocked,” Appling said. “I didn’t expect for that to happen. But it did. And now I can’t dwell on it.”
Having lost four of their past seven games -- including a stunner to league bottom-dweller Penn State on Wednesday -- that singular play may have salvaged Michigan’s season and pushed Burke back into the national player of the year race.
The root of the play -- and how Michigan played Sunday -- started a few days earlier in Pizza House, a local restaurant where Michigan coach John Beilein’s radio show is broadcast each week. Burke and seniors Corey Person and Josh Bartelstein had enough of the losing. They were sick of meetings with coaches.
They called one last chat, a players-only discussion lasting 90 minutes at Pizza House. Person laid out each player's contributions to the team. Burke brought up intensity and passion, things he felt Michigan needed. Unlike a season ago, when Michigan had obvious leaders in Zack Novak and Stuart Douglass, this year none existed. Until lately, when Burke started to realize it had to be him.
“It’s allowing the team to be able to grow in different areas,” Burke said. “I see our flaws and see what we need to work on, and once I let Glenn [Robinson III] know what he needs to work on or what he’s doing out there, it gets through to him.
“That means a lot, because we’re a young team.”
The catalyst of Michigan’s offense and the focal point of every team’s defense, Burke had to somehow do more.
For 39 minutes, he waited for the moment. He placed Michigan in the position to win anyway, scoring 21 points, dishing out 8 assists, grabbing 4 rebounds and making 5 steals -- the last two coming in the last half-minute of the game.
It was what he wanted. The game on the line. The pressure on him to make a play. The play. All things he had done before and things Michigan had seen before.
“The steal he does on the spin, he always does it,” freshman guard Caris LeVert said. “That’s Trey’s signature move. When he spun, I knew Trey was going to get him.
“When you kind of look, whenever an opposing guard spins like that, Trey is going to get his hand on the ball and get a breakaway.”
He did and as Burke drove, Michigan forward Mitch McGary hoped Burke would remember not to hang on the rim and to get back on defense.
They had seen all of this before -- Burke did something similar the past two seasons against Ohio State in this building -- but this time Burke understood the gravity of everything.
After he dunked it, he felt relieved. Michigan wasn’t done yet, both in this game and for the season. Of all those plays he made, this one ranked above them all.
“That’s No. 1,” Burke said. “I’ve had a lot of those types of steals but our team needed that the most at that time. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t got that steal. Maybe we’d be crushed here if they hit a game-winning shot.
“It was my job to make a play for this team.”
It has been all season. In its most critical juncture, he did.