INDIANAPOLIS — If not for a lanky former three-star recruit from suburban Columbus, history may have continued to play on loop Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Ohio State could have staged another stunning comeback, snared its seventh consecutive win over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament, and crashed the event’s championship game for the sixth straight year.
Instead, Caris LeVert changed the script — and so did Michigan in a wild 72-69 semifinal victory.
LeVert’s late game-saving offensive rebound after calling a risky audible helped shove the eighth-ranked Wolverines (25-7) into the Big Ten tournament championship game for the first time since 1998 while ending their rivals’ reign.
Michigan will play Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. today.
"I feel so fortunate right now," UM coach John Beilein said. "You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they’ve ended just like this, and the ball keeps bouncing our way."
A day after wiping out an 18-point deficit against Nebraska, the No. 24 Buckeyes (25-9) turned a 16-point hole into a three-point advantage. But Michigan recalibrated and held a two-point lead as Nik Stauskas let fly an off-target shot from the top of the key with 13 seconds remaining.
LeVert spotted one last chance to torment his once-favorite school.
A 6-foot-6 sophomore guard who arrived at college weighing less than 165 pounds, the Pickerington native had already scored 17 points as the hottest of Michigan’s blistering shooters. That was sweet enough for a player who originally signed with Ohio University — "Maybe I was undersized a little," he said — then received a late offer from Michigan.
But now he watched from the corner as Stauskas rose to shoot. His job was to jet back on defense, providing the safety valve to slow a fast break if Ohio State got the rebound. But LeVert noticed his man had crept to the elbow to spy Stauskas, who led UM with 18 points. He decided to abandon orders.
"It was just instinctive," said LeVert, now up to 185 pounds. "I knew my guy wasn’t going to box me out, and I knew if Nick missed it like he did, I’d get the rebound and be able to seal the win."
He did just that. LeVert grabbed the ball off the rim, Spike Albrecht made one of two free throws with six seconds left, and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft bobbled a game-tying 3-point attempt. The Wolverines outscored OSU 7-1 over the final 4:12.
How mad would Beilein have been if LeVert did not get the board?
"Depends on what happened on the other side," LeVert said with a smile. "If they had scored, I would have gotten in trouble."
Instead, his storybook day got its fitting end, with Michigan remaining in contention for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
"This is a dream come true getting to play against Ohio State on a big stage like this," LeVert said. "The goal coming in was to win the Big Ten championship. So it feels great."
Ohio State, meanwhile, endured a rare early exit after playing its third game in as many days. The Buckeyes are projected as no worse than a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tourney.
“We’re a better basketball team today than when we got here,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “Some guys showed that they can make plays when they need to make plays. We learned a lot about our defense. We’ve got four or five days to continue to build on this.”
Ohio State again displayed both of its very different faces Saturday. Michigan made eight of its first 11 3-pointers — including a bank shot by Stauskas — and dashed to an early 16-point lead. But the Buckeyes answered. LaQuinton Ross scored 19 points, Shannon Scott added 18, and OSU took its first lead on an alley-oop slam by Sam Thompson with 7:58 remaining.
Despite Craft missing much of the stretch run after committing his fourth foul with 11:44 left, the Buckeyes remained ahead 68-67 heading into the final media timeout.
Only in the dying minutes did the day come full circle. Glenn Robinson III hit two foul shots to put Michigan ahead 69-68 with 2:55 left and the league’s regular-season champions held on. The Buckeyes missed their last five shots and three of their final free throws — including two by Craft.
Michigan, finally, had reversed history.
"We weren't thinking about winning the Big Ten championship, the tournament," Stauskas said. "We were thinking about just beating Ohio State. This is a rivalry game."