For Michigan fans, Appalachian State is the definition of the worst possible loss.
There’s now a new contender.
Michigan blew a 15-point lead in the second half and lost, 84-78 on Wednesday night to a Penn State team that entered the game 0-14 in Big Ten play.
The Wolverines came to Penn State with control of their destiny. They knew they still faced a pair of tough home games against Michigan State and Indiana, but if they could win out, they would earn at least a share of the conference championship.
That’s gone now. So is any chance at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They vanished along with Michigan’s poise down the stretch.
It was a game that the Wolverines should have taken seriously, despite the Nittany Lions’ 18-game conference losing streak. After all, just 10 days earlier, Michigan had struggled for much of the night before beating Penn State, 79-71 at the Crisler Center.
Michigan played with fear instead of focus — like it was at Indiana’s Assembly Hall or Michigan State’s Breslin Center. The Wolverines weren’t getting stops, were missing free throws, and Trey Burke, the nation’s best point guard, was throwing the ball all over the arena.
“It was a great environment for Penn State tonight, and we didn’t handle it well,” Michigan coach John Beilein said during his postgame radio show. “They had a great plan, they got hot from the floor, and you see what happened.”
When the Wolverines finally settled down and took a 15-point lead early in the second half, they relaxed. After all, wouldn’t a team that hadn’t won a game in 2013 just roll over and take another loss?
Not Penn State; at least not on this night. Instead, one of the nation’s worst 3-point-shooting teams started hitting shots from all over the Bryce Jordan Center, quickly cutting into the deficit.
Michigan still led, though, and faced a situation in which a championship-caliber team steps up and gets a game under control. The Wolverines couldn’t do it. There were more turnovers, more bad shots and more missed free throws.
With the Nittany Lions focused on stopping Burke, Beilein tried something different. He put freshman Spike Albrecht at the point, and moved Burke to shooting guard. It didn’t work, as Albrecht looked like a deer in the headlights against Penn State’s pressure.
Beilein quickly went back to Burke, but the game already was snowballing out of control. Jermaine Marshall kept hitting 3-pointers for Penn State, and if Michigan hit a shot, D.J. Newbill was able to get to the rim with ease on the other end.
Michigan’s Jordan Morgan missed the front end of a one-and-one. Burke missed a free throw. Morgan missed another one. Marshall drove past Burke for an easy layup and the Nittany Lions suddenly led 81-78 with a minute left.
The Wolverines had the ball and a chance to save themselves from humiliation. They never scored another point. Glenn Robinson III missed inside, then again from outside. Burke clanked a 3-pointer and suddenly the Penn State fans were rushing the floor.
Beilein looked stunned. Burke, who finished with 18 points, six assists and six turnovers, told reporters that the officials had called the game in favor of Penn State, but he admitted that the loss came down to himself and his teammates.
“It came down to heart, really,” Burke told MLive.com. “It came down to toughness, and we didn’t play with that the last four or five minutes.
“They got to the rim, they hit 3’s, and we didn’t respond.”
If the Wolverines make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, a loss at Penn State might be forgotten. But at Michigan, the goal at the beginning of every football and basketball season is always the same: winning the Big Ten championship.
On Wednesday, the Wolverines threw away that chance. With Burke almost certainly heading for the NBA, it might be a while before they get another one.