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Iconic Performance Week: Glen Rice ascends to legend status, leads U-M to first national title

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Looking back at one of the great runs in tournament history.

Glen Rice #4

Thirty years later, Glen Rice hasn’t lost any of his swagger.

He’s about to recount the final part of the 1988-89 Michigan men’s basketball team’s long, strange journey. One that he made happen. Not singlehandedly, mind you. But over the first five games of the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament run, he had averaged 30.6 points on 58.3 percent shooting.

So you can see why he was so confident going into the national championship game against Seton Hall.

“I had no idea who they were,” he says. “No idea.”

Bruce Madej, Michigan’s sports information director at the time, remembers going into the locker room at the Seattle Kingdome and seeing Rice, relaxed, sprawled out on the table. More than relaxed — asleep. Just hours before the biggest game of his life, Rice was taking a nap.

I covered basketball for the Michigan Daily my senior year of college. 2019 was the 30th anniversary of the Wolverines’ first national title, and with the 1989 team set to be honored at Crisler that season, our beat put together an extensive oral history of the season and tournament run (which you can read here), which serves as the backbone for much of this piece.

Previously, I was more familiar Rice as a 3-point machine for the Heat and Hornets. Not quite “elite,” but he could drop 56 points on the Eastern Conference champion Magic if he felt like it.

But before that, the 6-foot-7 forward from Flint was going into his senior year in 1988-89 after averaging 22.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game the year prior. The Wolverines were loaded, with Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Sean Higgins and Loy Vaught, but had been knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen by North Carolina in 1988. Expectations, according to Mills, were “through the roof.”

Until the postseason, though, Michigan was up-and-down. The Wolverines started out 11-0 before losing to D-II Alaska-Anchorage, 70-66, at a holiday tournament in Utah. Towards the end of Big Ten play, they won five straight games, before an embarrassing 16-point loss to Illinois ended the regular season on a sour note.

Then things got crazy.

Head coach Bill Frieder had accepted an offer from Arizona State, but planned to coach Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. Once he told Bo Schembechler, though, the athletic director fired him on the spot. In Frieder’s place, assistant coach Steve Fisher was promoted to lead the Wolverines, the third seed in the NCAA Tournament Southeast region.

Before the tournament, Schembechler met with the team. “Typical Bo, ranting and raving,” Mills described it as. Those who were there describe Schembechler’s speech as more chew-out session than motivation. He went at every player on the team, challenging them directly.

When he came to Rice, Rice answered simply: “Coach, all you’ve got to do is buckle up and get ready for this ride.”

For his performance, Rice had won Big Ten Player of the Year, and was also named a second-team All-American. But going into the postseason, he “already knew that Glen Rice was a different player.”

“I kept in the front of me thinking that this is my last go-around, and I need to make the best of it,” he told me then. “If I give my best, I don’t think there’s a real shot that we can lose a game.”

That’s exactly what he gave.

Rice scored 23 points in an opening-round win over Xavier, and dropped 36 to beat South Alabama and punch Michigan’s ticket to the Sweet Sixteen. Their opponent: North Carolina, their nemesis from the year before. The Tar Heels were every bit as good this time around, coming in led by future pros J.R. Reid and Rick Fox, and a guard named Jeff Lebo who was averaging 2.1 threes per game.

“He was a great shooter,” Rice said. “But I was really determined to let them know there is no way in the world he can be in my house as a shooter.”

Michigan’s first play went to Rice. He rose up for his high, picturesque release and swished the first of eight 3-pointers he would hit in the Wolverines’ 92-87 win.

Rice followed up his 34-point showing with an efficient 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting in an Elite Eight blowout of Virginia. Michigan was going back to the Final Four for the first time since 1976 — and awaited another familiar face: Illinois.

The Wolverines had lost their previous two games against the Illini, but a late tip-in by Higgins sealed an 83-81 victory, pushing them through to the national title game. Rice, for his part, dropped a cool 28 points.

While Michigan was unfamiliar with Seton Hall, it didn’t take long for the Pirates to show what they were about. Both teams played tight defense, and Rice, while as keyed-in as ever, wasn’t quite as automatic, shooting under 50 percent from the field for just the second time in the tournament.

Not that it mattered. Rice still went for 31 points, and when it came time for the Wolverines to go for the win, tied at 71 with seconds left, the ball went to him.

Rice caught the ball, shook Seton Hall’s Andrew Gaze with a spin move and pulled up for the national title. The ball rolled right off the rim. Maybe it was fatigue from the previous five games, maybe it was just a miss. But it was a shot he would hit in his sleep.

Rice came right back to open the scoring in overtime, but the Pirates earned the upper hand late. They led, 79-78, with 17 seconds left, and the ball.

John Morton, having scored 35 points for the game, went one-on-one with Rice, who didn’t give an inch. Morton spun into the lane, and having nowhere to go, put up a tough floater over Rice. It missed everything. Rice came down with the rebound and kicked the outlet pass to Robinson, who sprinted down the court for the layup.

Referee John Clougherty had called a foul on Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene as Robinson drove to the cup with seconds left, sending the Wolverines’ point guard to the line.

“Even the Michigan players were looking around like, ‘What happened?” Morton told the Asbury Park Press last year. “What is going on right now?’”

Games of that magnitude don’t come down to free throws. Ever. But the 1989 national championship game did — and Robinson buried them both.

Seton Hall’s Daryll Walker’s Hail Mary bounced off the backboard, and fittingly, into the hands of Rice. The NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player cradled the ball in his left arm, rose his right arm and pumped his fist as Robinson jumped on him.

“It was like a five or six-year-old’s birthday party when he’s running around and he busts the pinata and candy flying everywhere, and you see everybody just running around, scattering, just happy as hell,” he said.

To this day, 1989 remains Michigan men’s basketball’s only national championship. Rice remains the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,442 points, and his 1989 season, in which he averaged 25.6 points while shooting 57.7 percent from the field and a scorching 51.6 percent from three, is still the most dominant individual statistical performance in program history.

But really, Glen Rice’s iconic status in Wolverine lore boils down to just six games. And 31 years later, those six games are still the gold standard for any Michigan athlete.