Michigan survives big Tenn. scare, heads to Elite Eight

Written By BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter Posted: 03/28/2014, 11:32pm
Array Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23) reacts during the first half of an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game against the Tennessee Friday, March 28, 2014, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS — It couldn’t happen. No chance. No way.

And yet it almost did. What would’ve been an all-time-awful NCAA tournament collapse came so very close to crashing down upon Wolverine Nation.

Michigan 73, Tennessee 71. The Wolverines surely won’t mind if you forget about that final score and simply focus on the fact they’re back in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.

“It would not have been good,” coach John Beilein said of a victory that nearly wasn’t and perhaps shouldn’t have been. “It would’ve been a tough bus ride home.”

Up 10 points on Tennessee with about three minutes to play, Midwest No. 2 seed Michigan began to cough, gag, wretch — everything but completely choke away a game against an 11th-seeded, inferior foe. There was nothing more gut-wrenching than this during last year’s tourney run, not even the big lead that got away against Louisville in the championship game.

But the Wolverines (28-8) found a way not to lose. And that way was senior forward Jordan Morgan.

Morgan will be remembered for drawing a charge on hulking Volunteers star Jarnell Stokes with six seconds to play and Michigan leading by a point. Stokes and Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said afterward that Morgan was moving on the play.

“I don’t think I fouled him,” Stokes said.

Who can even begin to guess, considering how severely game officials have struggled with charging calls all season with the new rules geared to enhance player safety?

But this much we know: Regardless of that one defensive play, Michigan wouldn’t have won the game without Morgan. And the Wolverines won’t win another game in this tourney if his one-man renaissance doesn’t continue to build.

Morgan is averaging six points and five rebounds this season. In three tourney games, though, he has two double-doubles followed by his best game yet. He led Michigan with 15 points against the Vols, came three rebounds shy of another double-double and — most important — hung extremely tough against Stokes.

Many people were giving the Vols a real chance in this game not only because of Stokes — who averaged about 20 points and 15 boards in wins over Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer — but because Michigan didn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it inside.

On Friday, as injured star center Mitch McGary cheered from the bench, Morgan came up McGary-large. And when it was over, he walked off the court, shouting, “Mismatch!” Because that’s what he’d heard and read for days — that Stokes against the Wolverines inside would be no contest.

“I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten, and we won the Big Ten outright,” Morgan said. “We’re not really soft around here. We lift a lot of weights. So it’s just, I don’t know, a pride thing for us. We’re not about to get punked.”

The Vols, led by Jordan McRae’s 24 points and 19 from Josh Richardson, deserve a lot of praise for their comeback. Even after the charge call on Stokes, they repeatedly made it almost impossible for Michigan to inbound the ball and seal the deal.

Heck, that they even made it to this stage of the tourney was a serious victory. Martin, whom you may remember from his playing days at Purdue, can forget about being fired now.

Michigan, meanwhile, continues to lead the way for the Big Ten. Certainly, Michigan State stole the Wolverines’ thunder in the conference-tournament title game. No doubt, Wisconsin is playing like a true title contender. Over the previous couple of weeks, the regular-season champs may have faded into the background some.

But forget that noise now. In March, every win is beautiful, even the hideous ones. And Michigan — thank you, Jordan Morgan — is back in position to take another crack at winning it all.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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