Somehow they'd tied it. After a dismal first half where the Michigan Wolverines couldn't hit sand in the desert and couldn't cover a taco with a paper towel, they tied it. Eight minutes earlier they were down 12 and looking like a team that would gnaw off its fingernails on Sunday before, if, they heard their named called. But down 12, the comeback started.
Taking a feed from Darius Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr buried a corner three pointer to cut the lead to 9 points. After a series of fruitless misses on both sides, Brandon Paul was left alone on a double team outside the 3 point line. Paul drained his open look pushing the lead back to twelve. That could've been it, but it wasn't. Michigan put the ball in Darius Morris' hands and said, "You're in charge," and the results were spectacular. With Smotrycz in the game for Jordan Mordan, the scrawny freshman found himself matched up with the equally scrawny senior Mike Tisdale. Reacting to Smotrycz' screen, Tisdale came out to the top of free throw line to cut off Morris' drive. Sensing this, Smotrycz faded behind the 3-point line as Morris' drive took his man and Tisdale with him into the paint. The dish. The shot. Net. Around the group I was with, you heard a clap but mostly you saw fist pumps and nervousness.
A pair of Illini possessions resulting in turnovers and the ball found its way back into Morris' hands. Isolating on the right side, Morris posted up his man, then deeked both him and Tisdale out of their shorts for a layin. Seven point game. Missing two shots the ball found Smotrycz again. Again he buried a three. Four point game. Trying to answer, Mike Tisdale missed his own three pointer and Darius Morris blew down the court on the rebound for a another quick lay in. Two point game. Another missed Illini shot and Morris had the ball in his hands again. Suddenly the comeback was real. Going to his left, Morris absorbed the contact from his man as he drove from the key toward the left side of the hoop, Morris stopped and pulled up for a 12 foot jumper that somehow rattled home. Tie game. Suddenly there was an electricity among the people I was with. A look in everyone's eyes that maybe, just maybe, this was actually happening.
It had been 5:32 seconds between points, when Mike Davis finally put in a pair of free throws to give the Illini back the lead. It lasted all of 17 seconds. Going in for a lay in Morris was hacked, and after rattling home two free throws, the game was tied again. On the ensuing possession, the Illini tried to one-on-one Evan Smotrycz with whom I believe was the veteran Mike Davis. Attempting the iso on the right side of the court, the entry pass was read by Smotrycz who picked it off and quickly found Novak who found Morris. Cutting across the timeline from left to right and angling toward the right side of the three point line, Morris saw Tim Hardaway Jr start his motion toward him. As Hardaway cut behind Morris, Darius underhanded a pass to Hardaway with a full 30 seconds left on the shot clock. Almost in one motion Hardaway caught the ball and began to raise up for a trey. You could hear it across the room from the assembled Michigan fans.... "Noooooooo......
To that point in the game you could've stored fish on Hardaway. He was 3 of 10 and had more shots blocked than made. But there's something about the second half, something about crunch time that makes this kid special. He knew Morris set him up for that shot. He knew he was shooting that ball. He knew he'd make it. Bouncing down the court with a grin on his face and three fingers in the air, Hardaway pounded his chest, as if to remind himself there was still work to be done. The deficit was gone. Michigan was leading 56-53. The room exploded.
A jumper by Mike Davis cut the lead to a digit, but Hardaway wasn't done. Sensing Bill Cole and his 4 fouls on his right, Hardaway went right at the bigger man with a left handed dribble. Going in for the lay in, Cole got a whole lot of Hardaway's arm and body, sending the freshman to the line. Two free throws later, Michigan was back up three. Two misses by Illinois and two rebounds by Evan Smotrycz and Zack Novak, respectively, sent the Wolverines back to the line. Novak converted both, and the final margin of the game was set as time expired 8 seconds later.
As we sat there, stunned, an impromptu version of "The Victors" broke out among us. Grins all around the tables and relieved looks of satisfaction. If there was ever a game that summed up Michigan's season it was this. The Wolverines sprinted to an early lead, collapsed during the middle, and roared back to win a game no one in their right mind would've put money on at the half. They did the improbable, and they made it look like they'd planned it this way all along.
From Noooo to YES! Michigan's going Dancing.
Michigan plays Ohio State tomorrow at 1:40 EST on CBS. Liveblog up 1:30 EST. See you there.