ATLANTA — John Beilein, who once stood on the sidelines at Erie Community College aching for the chance to coach Division I basketball, has taken his dream beyond what back then he ever dared imagine. On Monday night at the Georgia Dome, the Burt native and former DeSales High School player will be coaching for the national championship.
Beilein’s young but resolute Michigan team solved the puzzle of the Syracuse zone early Saturday night, stumbled late and then regained just enough composure to score a 61-56 victory and advance to a championship date with Louisville.
Tim Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 13 points, while Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III each had 10. C.J. Fair was pretty much everything for Syracuse, scoring 22 points. Brandon Triche had 11.
Michigan (31-7) frittered away almost all of a double-digit halftime lead before finding the resolve to regroup. The Wolverines launched a 5-0 burst after the Orange’s James Southerland missed a three that would have tied it with six minutes and change left.
From there, Michigan found some offensive flow for the first time in a long time. Trey Burke made a free throw. Robinson III scored on a tip-in. And when McGary swished a foul line jumper the lead was at 53-45 with 3:54 left.
But missed free throws left the door open, and Triche twice cut the lead to four – the second time with 50 seconds left. When McGary missed two free throws (actually three, there was a lane violation), Southerland brought Syracuse (30-10) within one on a three with 41 seconds to go.
Michigan’s trouble at the line continued. Burke missed one of two freebies, leaving the Michigan lead at two with 28.1 seconds left. From there, McGary drew a charge on Triche, Jon Horford made one of two free throws with 17.9 seconds left, and Syracuse’s Trevor Cooney missed on a drive when the Orange really needed a three. The rebound was tipped out to Michigan’s Jordan Morgan, who went in for a dunk and the game’s final points.
Syracuse finished out without its starting backcourt of Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom fouled out.
“We got back in the game in spite of our offense,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “When it was eight I thought we did just an unbelievable job of getting back in it and giving ourselves a chance and that’s all you can ask for in that situation down eight is to be able to make that kind of a move back. I was really proud of how these guys were able to do that.”
Down 11 at intermission, Syracuse rallied out of the gate and closed within seven on a conventional three-point play by Rakeem Christmas. At that point, Michigan was shooting just 1 of 6 in the half. That changed coming out of the next media timeout. McGary found Robinson III alone underneath for a resounding jam and then McGary added a dunk of his own off a slick feed from Burke to reinstated the 11-point edge.
Again, Syracuse countered, this time with a 7-2 spurt fueled by two Fair trips to the free-throw line. He made three freebies in the run, the last two after an offensive rebound that drew a third foul from McGary with 12:35 remaining. The Orange, outrebounded in the first half, were killing the Wolverines, 13-5, at that point of the second half.
The Orange kept coming with Fair showing them the way. With Michigan gone cold and baffled on offense, Fair nailed a baseline 17-footer then followed with a 15-footer and Syracuse was within three (48-45) for the first time since 20-17.
The second half bore no resemblance to the first, when Michigan shredded the vaunted Syracuse zone in opening a 36-25 halftime lead. McGary was pivotal to what transpired.
The Wolverines’ 6-foot-10 freshman center, maybe the nation’s most improved player since the New Year, became the hub for the rapid ball movement that denied the Orange time to shift and adequately cover the perimeter. McGary had four of Michigan’s 11 assists (on 13 field goals) in the half.
At first, Michigan’s perimeter shots weren’t falling. But once they did, it became a downpour.
The Wolverines went 44.8 percent from the field and 35.3 from three, startling numbers considering what Syracuse accomplished defensively over the first four games of the tournament. The Orange had limited opponents to 29 percent overall, 15 percent from behind the arc and a scant 184 points. Their inability to slow Michigan put the Orange in double jeopardy.
When the Wolverines shots weren’t falling there were rebounds to be had, and Michigan snared seven of them off the offensive glass in gaining a 20-15 advantage on the boards.
Syracuse had a 17-15 lead when the momentum shifted with a 9-0 Michigan run. Caris LeVert nailed a three off McGary’s quick kick to the wing. Hardaway made a layup after McGary dribbled a fast-break opportunity up the floor.
After a Morgan free throw, Michael Albrecht nailed another three off a McGary kick and the Wolverines were feeling it. Albrecht and Burke each added another three before the end of the half, the latter a bomb reminiscent of the shot he made to send the Kansas game into overtime.
SU shot 11 of 27 in the half. Fair (nine points) and Triche (five) combined to go 6 for 13. Everyone else went 5 for 14.
Both teams reversed their fortunes in March. Syracuse bottomed-out with a 61-39 loss to Georgetown but then won seven of eight. Michigan hadn’t won three in a row since mid-January.