Once again, I am left without words and yet, for the purposes of this, need to find them. Before the tournament began, we all thought about what would constitute a good outcome for this 2013 Dance, but it was necessarily contemplation of the abstract. Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4: these are mere ideas before the shots go up.
Although Michigan threatened to give it away in the end at the free throw line, Jordan Morgan's final slam turned the abstract into reality: the Wolverines, after beating Syracuse 61-56, are going to the national title game.
Michigan jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, but Syracuse rallied to take a 14-9 lead a little over seven minutes in, a potentially precarious moment for a young team looking to crack the tough 2-3 zone. Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke both missed their first two shots of the game (Burke missing both fairly badly), and so it seemed Michigan would need to find production from elsewhere in the early stages.
Fortunately, they got it from familiar names like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary. McGary, in five tournament games, has somehow magically transformed into a composite of Joakim Noah, hitting mid-range jumpers and leading the fast break, while also showing a little Tyson Chandler with his patented tap back to a guard on the perimeter.
However, Michigan got some somewhat unlikely scoring from guys like Caris LeVert, who nailed a pair of huge threes to pull Michigan out of its five-point deficit. Shortly thereafter, Spike Albrecht nailed a three from Alpharetta to put Michigan up 28-21 with just under five minutes left in the first frame.
Michigan scored 36 points in the first half alone, three points shy of Marquette's total output in Syracuse's last content. Through an efficient blend of outside shooting, transition play and expert McGary facilitation from the elbow (four first half assists), Michigan went into the half up 36-25, the Orangemen's largest halftime deficit of the season. The first half was truly a clinic on how to beat the zone, and Michigan almost did no wrong. Despite Burke shooting 1/5 from the field (with the one being a long three reminiscent of The Shot), the Wolverines cruised into the break on the back of contributions from, of course, Mitch McGary as well as the aforementioned characters.
With that said, you simply knew that Syracuse would make a run, and that Michigan's long range accuracy would likely take a bit of a fall.
The second half didn't start quite as auspiciously, as the Wolverines began with a THJ miss in the lane and a Glenn Robinson III turnover after stepping on the line due to some sideline pressure. Through the first 11 minutes of the second half, the Wolverines managed to score just nine points; as such, SU was able to sneak back to within four points of Michigan.
Four or five minutes in, the Wolverines did manage to ride a brief stretch of up tempo transition play. For a brief moment, Mitch McGary decided that on this particular play, he would channel Magic Johnson:
A pair of Burke steals in the same minute of play led to an alley-oop opportunity, which Robinson III unfortunately missed. No matter, as the second Burke steal produced another transition opportunity, ending with the six foot ten inch Mitch McGary galloping down the heart of the lane unencumbered for a thunderous dunk.
Transition opportunities were not quite as numerous as they were in the first half, but Michigan still pitched in the occasional sharpshooting to keep Syracuse at bay. A Hardaway three at the 17:24 mark extended the lead to 10, and another at the 9:06 mark pushed the lead back to seven. At this point, it was about simply hanging on, as the Wolverines looked to take Syracuse's best shot down the stretch.
A C.J. Fair jumper assisted by Brandon "That's A Mismatch" Triche, cut the Michigan lead to 48-45 with just under eight minutes to go, spurring a Beilein full timeout. For all of the aforementioned pyrotechnics, SU had gradually chipped away at Michigan's lead so that the final eight minutes would essentially be played on even footing.
A James Southerland three went up at around the 6:30 mark, which would tie the game if good. Fortunately, the shot clanked harmlessly off of the front of the rim, and Southerland remained scoreless on the evening.
A huge GRIII tip in off of a Burke missed floater pushed the lead to six, and a beautiful elbow jumper from McGary shortly thereafter pushed it to eight with just under four minutes to play. Still, if anybody in this tournament knows that a game is not over until it's over, it's Michigan.
SU threatened to get back into the game, slamming home a pair of dunks to cut the lead to four with just under two minutes to go. At this point, Syracuse got to fouling; Michigan would have to seal this game from 15 feet away.
As we've come to know, free throw shooting has oddly been a bit of an adventure for this Wolverine squad. In the final minute and change of play, Albrecht missed a front end, McGary went 0/2, and Burke and Horford both split a trip to the line. Horford's make, the second of his pair of attempts, was big, as it gave Michigan a 59-56 lead with 18 seconds to go, forcing SU to hit a trey to tie.
Syracuse was just 3/14 from three before its final possession, and you would have thought that they would like to tie it from there in spite of that percentage. Nonetheless, a Trevor Cooney two in the lane was off the mark, sparking a pass to a wide open Jordan Morgan, capping the game with purposeful two-handed slam.
The final second ticked off: Michigan had punched its ticket to the national title game.
Although both Michael Carter-Williams (1/6, 2 points, 5 turnovers) and Trey Burke had poor outings, it was Michigan's supporting cast that pushed it to victory. Playing against a new defensive look, the Wolverines put forth arguably one of their best halves of the season in the first frame, which proved to be just enough.
Against Louisville, Michigan will need a better stat line from its Player of the Year, but it's hard to believe Trey will shoot so poorly in consecutive games. The Wolverines will also need to hit their free throws, but even mentioning that at this point is me protesting too much, I think.
I don't think my disbelief will be suspended until this tournament is actually over, whether it ends in a win or a loss tomorrow night. Maybe that's a good thing, this prolonged state of awe. It must come to an end soon, but, for now, the echoing of "Let's Go Blue" within the Georgia Dome tethers all of this to reality, ever so slightly.