By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 6, 2013
ATLANTA — Just one game stands between Michigan and the National Championship.
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The Wolverines hung on in a nail-biter that came down to a defensive stop in final seconds, but when the clocks read zero, it was Michigan who prevailed — 61-56.
The Wolverines and their five freshmen, who played a significant role in Michigan’s first-half dominance, will attempt to do what the 1992 and 1993 Fab Five runner-up teams couldn’t: win it all.
As sophomore point guard Trey Burke entered the locker room following the game, he sent a message to Louisville, the Wolverines’ opponent in Monday’s title game.
“We’re not done yet,” Burke yelled.
“We know that we have more business to handle,” Burke said later. “This is a business trip and we’re one game away from making history.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford insisted that nothing about Michigan’s run to the title game has surprised him.
“I honestly have expected this,” Horford said. “This is where we’re meant to be and obviously we made it.”
After controlling the first half en route to an 11-point lead at the break, Michigan’s offense was slowed down for much of the second half as Syracuse battled back with vengeance. The Orange nearly erased their deficit altogether, as forward C.J. Fair — who exposed the Wolverines’ defense all night — knocked down a jumper to pull Syracuse within two of Michigan with just under eight minutes left to play, capping a 13-5 run. Fair had a game-high 22 points.
The Wolverines (12-6 Big Ten, 31-7 overall) scored the next five points to push their lead back to eight, but the Orange responded again with back-to-back baskets. After Michigan stretched the lead back out to eight, Syracuse cut its deficit to only one thanks to James Sutherland's 3-pointer. Burke — in one of the least productive nights of his illustrious two-year career — missed one of his two free throws, giving the Orange a chance to tie or take the lead with 28 seconds left.
But redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan, who has seen his minutes diminish rapidly in the NCAA Tournament, drew a charge on the ensuing possession, and redshirt sophomore Jon Horford made one of his two free throws with 17 ticks left to make it a three-point game.
After a Syracuse (11-7 Big East; 30-10 overall) miss, Morgan threw home an emphatic, game-sealing slam as the clock expired to send Michigan to the National Title game.
“I told him all along that if we win this tournament, then he’s going to have a moment and he had two of them,” said senior guard Josh Bartelstein. “To take that charge, that’ll go down as the best charge in Michigan basketball history.”
Freshman forward Mitch McGary again proved to be a force down low, scoring 10 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out six assists, though his second-half effort was quieted after a dominant first half.
The vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone never allowed Burke to get in a rhythm, either. The point guard connected on just one of his eight shots, finishing with just seven points and four assists.
“You couldn’t pay me to believe that Mitch McGary would have more assists in the game than Trey Burke,” said Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander.
Freshman guard Nik Stauskas, meanwhile, didn’t make a single shot and was held scoreless after a career outing last weekend in Dallas.
Syracuse opened the game with the first real punch, but Michigan didn’t let it hurt. After the Orange jumped ahead to a 14-9 lead, the Wolverines finished the half by outscoring Syracuse, 27-11, to take a 36-25 lead into halftime.
Despite a quiet game from many of its top scorers, Michigan dominated the opening stanza on the heels of its freshmen. McGary led the first-half charge with six points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks, but it was the unexpected contributions of freshmen guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert that sparked the Wolverines. Both LeVert and Albrecht knocked down two 3-pointers, filling in the scoring void left by Hardaway, Burke and Stauskas, who combined for eight first-half points.
The Wolverines got 16 points from their bench in the opening period.
“This is the biggest stage in college basketball and Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht did a great job of stepping up we needed it,” Burke said. “That just goes to show how big they are in big moments.”
Added Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan: “We needed some guys to step in and step up and they did that.”
Just thirty minutes after the semifinal victory, when asked if he’s begun to envision what it’ll be like on Monday night should the Wolverines win, Burke — the consensus National Player of the Year — was openly honest.
“You have to have a vision,” Burke said. “I’m trying to envision it right now, just jumping up and down, crying really. Tears and joy. You have to have a vision before you play the game. You have to see it and that’s what I’m going to do.”