ANN ARBOR , Mich. — The Big Ten championship was balanced on the rim, and all over the Midwest, fans waited to see which way it was going to fall.
With Indiana leading by a point and the final seconds running off the clock, Michigan’s Jordan Morgan tipped a rebound up but not in — it rolled around the hoop and then swayed back and forth, taunting fans of four different schools.
If the ball dropped through the net, Indiana would share the Big Ten title with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. If the center of balance was a half-inch to the other side, the second-ranked Hoosiers would have the conference championship to themselves.
There was no joy in Ann Arbor — or Columbus or East Lansing — because Morgan’s shot and the championship finally rolled off the side of the rim and into the hands of Indiana’s Christian Watford.
The Hoosiers, 72-71 victors Sunday afternoon at Crisler Center, mobbed each other at center court, having come back from five points down in the final 40 seconds.
“We’ve been working on this all year,” said Indiana’s Cody Zeller, who scored the final six points of the game to finish with 25 and 10 boards. “We know how to close out a game.”
They got a lot of help from the Wolverines.
Michigan could have taken a six-point lead with 52 seconds to play, but freshman Glenn Robinson III could only split a pair of free throws. Still, that seemed safe, even after Zeller tipped in a shot to make it 71-68.
However, that was when the seventh-ranked Wolverines came apart.
Indiana fouled Tim Hardaway Jr., and he missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Zeller hit two free throws, and now it was 71-70, but Indiana still needed to foul.
This time, the Hoosiers had to foul star point guard Trey Burke, an 80-percent shooter. And, somehow, Burke’s free throw wouldn’t fall.
“You get the ball to the rim the same way every time, and they almost always go in,” said Burke, who had 20 points but was only 7 of 20 from the field and 1 of 3 from the line.
“In the last minute, nothing went in.”
Indiana grabbed the rebound, and point guard Yogi Ferrell burst down the floor to set up —who else? — Zeller. His layup gave the Hoosiers a 72-71 lead.
Michigan was out of timeouts, but Burke knew what to do. He drove down the floor, used a Morgan screen to get a step on Victor Oladipo and went to the rim. His lefty layup over the 7-footer Zeller looked good, but wouldn’t go down.
Still, Morgan was all by himself in perfect position for the tip.
“The ball came right to Jordan, and he tapped it back,” Burke said. “I thought the ball was in the basket, but it just went in and out. I thought he had it.”
Instead, Watford grabbed the ball while falling out of bounds and flipped it to Zeller as the clock ran out. That gave Indiana its first solo Big Ten championship in 20 years, the top seed in the Big Ten tournament and an inside track to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re not done yet,” Indiana guard Jordan Hulls said.
The Hoosiers should have been done long before the last minute. They struggled with their shooting all day, but Michigan couldn’t keep Zeller and Oladipo off the glass. The two Hoosiers, considered Burke’s top rivals for the conference and national Player of the Year awards, combined for 23 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive glass.
In all, the Hoosiers finished with 24 offensive boards — a staggering 58 percent of their missed shots.
“We played good defense all night, but they kept sending three or four players to the offensive glass and we kept missing at least one of them,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “That was so, so huge. We did such a nice job on defense that it is just a shame that we didn’t block out.
“We block out every day in practice; trust me, I watch the film. I don’t know why we didn’t do it in the game.”
The endless second and third chances kept the Hoosiers in a game in which they made just three two-point jumpers all night.
“We gave up 24 offensive rebounds,” Hardaway said. “That’s just a disgrace.”
Whatever the reasons, Michigan has made things much harder for itself. By losing, the Wolverines dropped to the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament.
That means instead of a first-round bye, they play Thursday night against No. 12 Penn State. The Nittany Lions went 2-16 in conference play, but one of those wins came against Michigan.
If they beat Penn State, the Wolverines would face Wisconsin in the quarterfinals on Friday. A win there probably would give them a third crack at the Hoosiers on Saturday and a shot at Sunday’s title game.
“We’ve got to win four games now, so it would be something special if we can win the Big Ten championship,” Beilein said. “And we have to play Thursday, so this is going to be a very short week. We’ve got to find a way to learn from this without killing everyone’s legs.”
Realistically, the Wolverines will be using the conference tournament as a way to get ready for the Big Dance. The Big Ten banner they wanted was the one that got away at Sunday’s buzzer.
“This one really hurts,” Burke said. “This one was for a championship.”