ATLANTA (AP) — Michigan is more than just five fabulous players.
No, this is quite a team — all the way down the roster.
Fearlessly attacking Syracuse’s suffocating zone in the first half, getting big contributions off the bench, and hanging on for dear life at the end, the Wolverines advanced to the national championship game with a 61-56 victory over the Orange in the Final Four on Saturday night.
So put away those comparisons to the Fab Five.
This group of young stars is determined to leave its own legacy.
“We’ve been a team all year,” said coach John Beilein, whose Wolverines were playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1993, when the Fab Five lost for the second straight time in the national title game. “It was great.”
Michigan (31-7) will be going for its first national title since 1989 when it faces Louisville on Monday at the Georgia Dome. Syracuse (30-10) failed to complete an all-Big East final in the fabled league’s last season before a major overhaul.
Louisville was established as a 4½-point title game favorite.
Don’t expect that to bother the brash young Wolverines a bit. They showed they could win even when their best weapon, Associated Press player of the year Trey Burke, was having a really ugly night.
He scored just seven points on 1-of-8 shooting.
“We know Trey is our leader, and sometimes he’s not going to have a game like he’s had all season,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who led Michigan with 13 points. “That’s when our team stepped up.”
Trailing 58-56, the Orange had a chance to force overtime. But Brandon Triche was called for a foul when Jordan Morgan stepped in to take the charge with 19.2 seconds left.
“Jordan is our best charge-taker,” Beilein said. “He stood in there and took a good one.”
After Jon Horford made only one of two free throws, Syracuse called timeout and set up a play. Curiously, the Orange didn’t attempt a tying 3-pointer. Instead, Trevor Cooney drove the lane looking to put up an easier shot. But the ball was swatted away, Michigan saved it from going out of bounds and Morgan wound up taking a long pass the other way.
He threw down a thunderous slam with just over a second remaining to cap the triumph.
Triche blamed himself for driving the ball recklessly into the lane when Syracuse had a chance to tie it.
“I was just trying to make a play for the team,” he said. “I probably should have made a better decision, probably should have pulled up for the jump shot. … I did see him, but I figured, I was already in the air jumping.”
With Burke struggling to get open looks and misfiring even when he did, Michigan got an unexpected contribution off the bench from freshmen Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht.
LeVert scored eight points and Albrecht chipped in with six — all of them crucial after the Wolverines went cold in the second half and struggled to put away the Orange.
“We had a lot of guys in there,” Beilein said. “You never know who the outlier is, you never know who’s going to come in and get that done.”
Of course, there’s nothing unusual about Michigan getting big performances from first-year players. This team starts three freshmen — Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas — which, of course, rekindles memories of the great Fab Five teams.
These kids want nothing to do with the comparisons, saying they haven’t done nearly enough to be mentioned in the same breath with a team that changed the face of college basketball.
Well, if the Wolverines can win their next game, they’ll accomplish something that eluded the Fab Five: a national title.
Syracuse was looking to give 68-year-old Jim Boeheim another title, a decade after the Orange won it all in their last trip to the Final Four. Boeheim has no plans to retire, but his quest for a championship is on hold for another year.
“I told you I’m not going to answer that question unless you ask that of every coach,” Boeheim snapped at a reporter when asked about his future. “I never indicated at any time that I’m not coming back.”
Michigan won this game in the opening 20 minutes, doing exactly what it needed to do against Syracuse’s suffocating 2-3 zone: knock down open 3s, crash the boards, and work the ball inside and out with crisp, rapid-fire passes.
“I thought we got off to a really bad start defensively in the first half,” Boeheim said. “We just didn’t have the movement that we’ve had, and Michigan took advantage of it. Our offense was not good in the first half or the second half. Second half, we got our defense going a lot better, and got back in the game in spite of our offense.”
When Syracuse started extending its perimeter defense, looking to cut off the long-range shots, Michigan created an open look late in the half with a nifty bit of ball movement. Robinson — like Hardaway, the son of a former NBA star — took a pass, whipped it ball to LeVert, who dribbled a couple of times and fed the ball back to Robinson for an open 15-footer.
Nothing but net.
The Wolverines began to pull away from Syracuse even without much of a contribution from Burke. He finally scored his first points with just under a minute remaining in the first half, swishing a 3 from nearly the same spot on the court where he made the long shot that stunned top-seeded Kansas.
It would be Burke’s only basket of the night.
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t offense,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t have good shooting nights, but it was defense that allowed us to advance.”
Burke came up huge in the South Regional, leading Michigan back from 14 points down with less than 7 minutes remaining against Kansas. He forced overtime with a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation, and Wolverines finished off the 87-85 upset in overtime.
Syracuse, meanwhile, had taken its trademark defense to new levels of stinginess in the NCAA tournament.
The Orange arrived in Atlanta having surrendered a paltry 45.75 points over four games, holding Montana (34), top-seeded Indiana (50) and Marquette (39) to their lowest scoring totals of the season. Overall, Syracuse’s tournament opponents had combined to shoot just 28.9 percent from field (61 of 211) and 15.4 percent from 3-point range (14 of 91).
Syracuse was brimming with confidence heading into the Final Four, believing its zone could shut down the Wolverines and its more experienced lineup would take advantage of Michigan’s youth.
But the Wolverines had more points by halftime than Montana, and nearly as many as Marquette managed in the regional final. Even though Hardaway missed a trey just before the buzzer sounded, Michigan sprinted off the court with a commanding 36-25 lead.
Syracuse didn’t have enough offensive firepower to come all the way back, shooting just 42 percent (23 of 55).
C.J. Fair scored 22 points, doing his best to rally the Orange all by himself. But Triche, with 11 points, was the only other Syracuse player in double figures.
With Michigan’s starters also struggling, the guys off the bench picked up the slack.
LeVert, who seemed headed for a redshirt early in the season and was known more for defense than offense, made a couple of 3-pointers in the opening half. He had connected just 11 times from that range coming into the Final Four.
Albrecht was another surprise. He, too, buried a couple of shots beyond the arc — one of them going through from the corner while he was sliding on his backside toward the Syracuse bench. Coming into Atlanta, he had made only a dozen 3-pointers the entire season.
There’s still another game to go.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” said McGary, one of those Michigan freshmen. “They’re a team like Syracuse that also plays in Big East and they remind me of VCU the way they trap and can turn over the ball, so it should be a great matchup.”
The Wolverines routed VCU 78-53 in the second round of the tournament.
If they can win one more time, they’ll have bragging rights on the Fab Five.
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