April 9, 2013

U-M's hopes spike in first half

The consensus national Player of the Year sat on the bench, unable to do a thing. But the Player of the Moment seemingly did everything. And freshman Spike Albrecht's first-half show-stopper almost made a championship difference.

Albrecht, bound for Appalachian State but for a wave of Michigan transfers after last season, climbed a different mountain the night of the national championship game. He stepped on the big stage and didn't bow to anyone.

Albrecht entered in Burke's absence and hit a three. And then another. And another, and one more before intermission. NBA range, hugging the line? No matter. They all dropped.

When Albrecht wasn't playing '89 vintage Glen Rice from long range, he was playing Curly Neal with the basketball, dribbling through Louisville's pressure and slashing to the hole on his way to 17 first-half points. The unknown became the unstoppable, for one shining moment.

"I have so much trust in that young man and the roll he's been on," U-M head coach John Beilein said. "In the early season practices, Spike's team always won. They always won…

"I have so much confidence in him, I don't have to tell him anything. He and I must think a lot alike, because he's got so much confidence."

Not that Albrecht stopped passing out water bottles in the U-M sideline huddle to enter this one. He'd already dropped a pair of three-point bombs on Syracuse in Michigan's national semifinal win, and showed throughout the season his uncanny ability to look like the water boy but deliver a flood of positives on the court.

But here? And now? Albrecht stood as much chance of standing in the spotlight amid Louisville's flesh-clawing defenders as the Fab Five did of subbing into the game.

Yet there he was, dropping threes and jaws simultaneously.

"That was probably back to high school days," Albrecht admitted. "Trey, with two fouls - Coach Beilein doesn't play guys with two fouls in the first half, so I knew I was in the rest of the half. I was just fortunately hitting shots. Teammates were finding me."

In a game featuring just six first-half minutes out of Burke, the Wolverines built a double-digit advantage because Beilein spiked the lineup. Burke scored Michigan's first seven points, and for the rest of the half, it was Albrecht 17, Everyone Else 14.

And that unbelievable act gave the Wolverines a shot in the arm, and a shot in the game. At one point, even U-M backcourt coach LaVall Jordan could be seen laughing in disbelief at the extraordinary show.

Nobody was laughing afterward, after it all turned around, but Albrecht's effort didn't go unrecognized.

"If there was a point guard I want coming off the bench, it's Spike Albrecht," Burke said. "Each and every game he's going to give you 110 percent effort. He's going to make plays for you. He may not win the look test, but he's going to make plays for this team.

"He has a bright future ahead of him. I wasn't surprised by his performance today. We see him do things in practice a lot. Unfortunately, we couldn't get it done today as a team."

In the end, Albrecht's wizardry proved a footnote. Fairy tales remain, for the most part, in fairy tale books. The freshman didn't score in the second half, watching the headliners take over and decide the matter.

But for a few shimmering moments, the rookie did everything no one could have imagined. In so doing, he gave the Wolverines a shot at the big prize.

Someday, he'll be able to manage a smile over that effort. But in the ashes of an almost national championship, those emotions remained far from his mind.

"Obviously, we're all very disappointed in the loss, but we battled the whole time," Albrecht said. "That doesn't take away from all the success we've had all season, the hard work we put in. I wanted it so bad. I know these [players] did too, and the coaches.

"We wanted it for our seniors especially. They've been great leaders for us all. But Louisville was the better team today."

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