Michigan survives in frantic final minute against Syracuse
ATLANTA -- The white board on Michigan's locker room carried a simple message. In black marker and oversized font, the words "40 minutes" were on display for all to see.
That's the short distance between Michigan and its first national title since 1989. Michigan will face Louisville on Monday night, but only after surviving a harrowing, teeth gnashing and seemingly infinite final minute in its 61-56 victory over Syracuse.
"It went by really slow, a lot of fouls and a lot of time-outs," said Michigan's Nik Stauskas. "It seemed like an hour."
Michigan controlled a majority of the game against the Orange on Saturday night leading by as many as 11 points. With 60 seconds remaining, Michigan led by six points.
What unfolded in those 60 seconds wasn't always pretty, and it certainly wasn't pithy. On the box score play-by-play there are 44 one-line entries for baskets, fouls, rebounds and substitutions.
Michigan needed a key charge from reserve Jordan Morgan, a questionable decision by Syracuse's Trevor Cooney and just enough free throws to avoid a Memphis-level Final Four self-destruction.
But unlike Michigan folding in the final minute against Indiana -- costing them a Big Ten title -- the Wolverines managed to survive the final minute against Syracuse for a shot at the national title.
"It did take forever," Morgan said. "I was looking at the clock and (wondering), 'How much time is left?'"
Just enough for Morgan to seal the game with a dunk just before the buzzer went off. And while that play closed the game, there's no question that Morgan made the biggest impact for Michigan a little earlier. With Michigan misfiring free throws and looking tighter than a snare drum, Morgan drew a momentum-shifting charge on Triche with the Wolverines clinging to a 58-56 lead. Replays show that it could have gone either way, a difficult call for the officials. But there's no questioning how big of a play it ended up being for Michigan.
"I don't know if the fans understand that that was the biggest play of the game," Michigan's Jon Horford said.
Michigan coach John Beilein has many sayings, and one of his defensive staples is, "Be in position to be in position."
Morgan is known as the "Minister of Defense," according to assistant coach Bacari Alexander. And in order to make a play that will long live in Michigan lore, Morgan was in position to be in position.
That means when the ball went in on the outer-third, Morgan was sagging off his man toward the middle to be in help-side position.
"When I saw him get leverage I just stepped over," Morgan said, "and I guess the rest is history."
History indeed. It will go down as one of the savviest and most clutch plays in Michigan history. Triche admitted after the game he "probably should have pulled up" for a jumper as he saw Morgan slide over.
"I think he kind of looked at me," Morgan said, "and didn't really believe I was going to step up and take a charge or not."
That left Syracuse without its starting backcourt. Michael Carter-Williams fouled out with 1:14 to go. His fourth foul, less than 30 seconds earlier, was the worst call of the night. Michigan's Tim Hardaway, who led Michigan with 19 points, appeared to elbow Carter-Williams to the ground, but the result was a block on Carter-Williams. (He was in such disbelief he did some sort of 1980s breakdancing move).
The absence of Triche and Carter-Williams left the ball in reserve guard Trevor Cooney's hands for the game's most baffling play. Cooney, a redshirt freshman, had the ball out of a time-out with 17 seconds left and the Orange trailing by three.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called a play to post up senior wing James Southerland, who'd played terribly for 38 minutes but found himself in the late stages with a dunk and critical three-pointer. (His only two baskets.)
"I mean, the play was try and get something toward the basket and then foul again," Cooney said. "They weren't making foul shots."
Cooney said that Michigan took the play to Southerland away. Instead of looking for a game tying three-pointer, Cooney drove the lane and missed a jumper with nine seconds left. Hardaway grabbed the rebound and Morgan streaked for the game winning dunk. Cooney and Boeheim will be second-guessed for a long time.
"At that point in time, we didn't have a play to get a three off," Cooney said. "It was just kind of get to the basket and get a shot off and score."
Michigan only found itself on the brink of an epic meltdown because of its putrid free throw shooting. They missed 6-of-10 free throws in the final 69 seconds. (Technically it was 5-of-9 because Mitch McGary missed three consecutive shots after being granted an extra one because of a lane violation by Syracuse's Baye Moussa Keita).
Against Indiana when Michigan squandered the Big Ten title, they were victimized when Trey Burke and Hardaway missed front ends of one-and-ones in the final minute.
"That situation in the Big Ten season has gone wrong for us," Stauskas said. "The fact that against Kansas we pulled out a close game and against today here we held on, it's great to see things are finally starting to go our way a little bit."
And thanks to Morgan's heroics, the memories of the meltdown, against Indiana remained memories.
"A different outcome," Morgan said with a smile.
And after surviving that final minute, the message remains the same on the Michigan white board for Monday night. They are 40 minutes from a national title, and they were reminded again Saturday every one counts.