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COLUMBUS — Moments after releasing what felt like the perfect shot to save a perfect season, Trey Burke looked skyward in disbelief.
Ohio State fans may have looked to the heavens too.
A sold-out crowd at Value City Arena exhaled, then rattled the rafters Sunday as the Michigan star’s go-ahead 3-point attempt with 16 seconds left dropped halfway through the basket and detoured out, allowing the Buckeyes to escape this one-time runaway with a 56-53 victory.
It was No. 2 Michigan’s first loss and came at a particularly painful juncture. A win would have vaulted the Wolverines to a No. 1 ranking for the first time in 20 years, marked their best start in program history, and represented a loud shot across the bow of their three-time defending Big Ten champion rivals.
"That would have definitely been a great opportunity, but eeeeeeeeeeeverything happens for a reason," said Burke, a Columbus native. "They were the better team today."
Old hat, in other words.
The 15th-ranked Buckeyes (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) reintroduced themselves as league contenders and brushed aside Michigan (16-1, 3-1) for the 17th time in 20 meetings with a blistering start and a clutch finish.
In between, it was not pretty. After sprinting to a 29-8 lead, the Buckeyes scored 27 points over the last 27 minutes as Michigan — the nation’s last unbeaten team — hacked away, eventually tying the game at 46 with a 3-pointer by Glenn Robinson III. But OSU answered with a 6-0 run keyed by a pair of inside scores by reserve center Evan Ravenel and desperately held on.
"At times, we lost our composure and during a timeout I had to remind them of Will Ferrell’s ‘ELE’ — Everybody Love Everybody,’" Matta said. "But we pulled out the victory, and I’m proud of them."
For the Buckeyes, the significance of the win belied the calendar. It was a clear-cut signature win after they dropped their first three games against ranked opponents, including a 19-point defeat in their Big Ten road opener at Illinois.
"It’s always in the back of your mind," said junior guard Aaron Craft, a Findlay native. "We haven’t played our best against the better teams we’ve played this year. We just kind of took a step back and tried to find a way to get a big win."
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Behind forward Deshaun Thomas, who scored a game-high 20 points, the Buckeyes ran away from a Michigan team that played seven underclassmen in its nine-man rotation. OSU opened on a 13-3 run and led 29-8 with 6:52 remaining.
But the bigger story would prove its defense. When the Buckeyes went cold — an enduring theme in big games — they made sure Michigan did too.
The most anticipated matchup was Craft against Burke, who has emerged in his sophomore season as a national player-of-the-year candidate. Craft, regarded as the top defender in the conference, proved last year to be among the few players capable of slowing Burke and was out to do the same on Sunday.
Matta noticed this purpose throughout, from Craft’s stoicism during pregame introductions — usually, the coach said, "we may joke around or smile" — to the point guard’s plea during a late timeout.
"He said, ‘Hey guys, stop helping, I can do the job,’" Matta recalled.
No help was needed. Michigan, which came in shooting 51.4 percent from the field, shot 38.3 percent and made only 6 of 20 3-pointers on Sunday. Burke finished with 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting, four assists, and four turnovers.
The Buckeyes’ defense held strongest when it mattered most, with Michigan missing six straight field goals as OSU turned a tie into a 52-46 lead. They also admittedly benefited from a dose of fortune when Burke’s step-back 3-pointer somehow rimmed out with the Wolverines trailing 52-50.
"I thought it was going to go in when I turned around," said Craft, who had nine points and four assists.
The Buckeyes iced the game at the line as a crowd Matta called unsurpassed in his eight years at OSU roared, chanting "Just like football."
For Michigan coach John Beilein, the game provided his youthful team with a needed lesson. The Wolverines’ only previous true road games came at Northwestern and Bradley.
"This is terrific for us," Beilein said. "This is what every coach will tell you. When is the last team that didn't lose? ... To me, the rankings are irrelevant. What’s the end of the story? What are you like in March?"
Tim Hardaway, Jr., added 12 points for Michigan. Nik Stauskas — the league’s top 3-point shooter -- was held scoreless.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.