COLUMBUS, Ohio — A ball that rattled around the rim and bounced out separated Michigan from its first No. 1 ranking in more than 20 years. Point guard Trey Burke’s stepback jumper with 17 seconds went down, then came out, leaving No. 2 Michigan on the wrong side of a 56-53 loss to rival and 15th-ranked Ohio State on Sunday.
After No. 1 Duke lost to North Carolina State a day earlier, the Wolverines were in prime position to ascend to No. 1 for the first time since November 1992. Instead, they went home with their first loss, also depriving them of the best start in school history.
“Some go in and some don’t,” said Burke, a sophomore who just happens to be from Columbus and is friends with several of the Buckeyes. “I thought it was going in. It looked good. I think it went in and then came out.”
Michigan (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) trailed 52-50 and had the ball as the seconds sifted away. Everyone in a hoarse, capacity crowd of 18,809 knew that Burke, a star at Columbus’ Northland High School where he was a teammate of former Buckeye Jared Sullinger, would likely take the last shot.
Aaron Craft — whom Michigan coach John Beilein said was as good as any defender he had ever seen — prevented Burke from driving. His path blocked, Burke jumped back and then launched the shot.
“We were up two, so that makes it a little more challenging for me,” said Craft, selected as the Big Ten’s top defender a year ago. “Fortunately enough for me, that shot he took rimmed in and out. I kind of turned around (and saw) we grabbed the rebound.”
Lenzelle Smith Jr. grabbed the rebound. A moment later he was fouled again and hit two free throws for breathing room. Craft, who had struggled on offense most of the season, then made two more foul shots to more than offset Burke’s circus 3-pointer with a second left.
The Buckeyes had done most of their offensive damage early, following Burke’s opening 3-pointer with a 16-0 run that was started and ended with baskets by Deshaun Thomas, who led the Buckeyes (13-3, 3-1) with 20 points. From there on, it was just a matter of whether Ohio State — which had blown a late lead at Duke in November — could hold off the Wolverines, who came in averaging 81 points a game with four starters in double figures.
Burke led Michigan, which was trying to exceed the 16-0 start of the 1985-86 team, with 15 points. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 12. Down 21 points in the first half, Michigan kept chipping away.
The Wolverines switched defenses, causing the Buckeyes problems with matchup zones. Eventually, Glenn Robinson III flipped in a 3-pointer from the right wing to tie it at 46 with just under 6 minutes left.
The Buckeyes regained some momentum when Shannon Scott fed post player Evan Ravenel for a dunk to regain the lead. On the next possession, Ohio State went inside again and Ravenel, averaging 6.3 points a game, bulled his way for another basket.
After another Michigan missed shot, Thomas took a pass on the left baseline and made a quick spin to the end line before banking in a shot for a 52-46 lead.
The Wolverines missed six straight field goal attempts down the stretch, going scoreless for more than 4 minutes until Burke hit two free throws with 1:37 left to cut the lead to 52-48.
A steal and dunk by Robinson made it 52-50 with 1:16 left, setting up the potential tying shot by Burke, who grew up a rabid fan of the Buckeyes but wasn’t recruited by coach Thad Matta because he already had Craft and was close to signing Scott to play point.
“He got a heck of a look at it,” Matta said of Burke’s shot.
The Buckeyes have been at their best against their worst opponents, and vice versa. They came into the game 12-0 vs. unranked teams and 0-3 against those in the Top 25. But after what even the players called an up-and-down season, they came up especially big against their most heated opponent.
After Craft had discounted the possibility that the Buckeyes drew any extra incentive by wanting to prevent their archrivals from taking over the top spot in the polls, Ravenel spoke up.
“There’s always satisfaction in denying Michigan the No. 1 spot in the country,” he said with a wide grin.