INDIANAPOLIS — By the end of it, Michigan could finally exhale.
Eli Brooks wiggled free from a scrum with the rebound as serenades of cheers washed down from a boisterous crowd. In the frontcourt, he dribbled out the inevitable.
A special season will last at least one more game.
In a high-flying shootout, the Wolverines (22-4 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) outlasted upset-minded LSU (19-10), 86-78, to punch a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen. For the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, Michigan survives into the second weekend.
“That’s where you want to be, that’s where you dream of playing,” Brooks said after the game with a smile. “That’s what we expect at Michigan. But you have to earn it.”
The upstart Tigers ensured the Wolverines did just that. For forty minutes, Michigan could not so much as breathe.
LSU’s much-acclaimed fifth-ranked offense proved to be as advertised. The Tigers, buoyed by freshman sensation Cameron Thomas, roared out of the gates with an 8-2 start. Thomas, utilizing his 6-foot-4 frame to shoot over a series of smaller defenders, tallied a quick eight points of his own.
Michigan’s offense floundered, enabling LSU to carry a nine point advantage deep into the first half. The Wolverines failed to capitalize on their height advantage — forward Darius Days, at 6-foot-7, drew the assignment on 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Throughout the first 13 minutes, Dickinson managed just one field goal attempt.
An emerging track meet seemed to play into LSU’s hands. During timeouts, the Michigan huddle remained optimistic.
“There were a lot of possessions out there where we could have held our head down because LSU made a great run, got the lead early in the first half,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But our team stayed the course.”
After scuffling early, Michigan weathered the blitz, exploiting a porous LSU defense that entered with the 124th ranked unit in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Senior guard Eli Brooks led the charge with 13 first-half points, including a trio of 3-pointers.
LSU’s white-hot start proved unsustainable. Though the Tigers led for all but two minutes in the first half, Michigan claimed a tenuous one-point advantage at the break.
“I think the defense really sparked it, sparked our pace,” Brooks said. “Just the intensity that we brought on the defensive end. We limited them to one shot. We made everything hard in those four minutes and rebound(ed) the ball, got out, ran in transition.”
Momentum, though, proved to be fleeting. An early 8-0 spurt placed the Wolverines back on their heels, ensuing a seesaw affair. Michigan responded with a 10-0 run. The Tigers, ever resilient, battled back with an 8-0 stretch of their own.
An air-balled 3-pointer from Brooks, followed by a Thomas 3-pointer, stretched the LSU lead to five. Again, Michigan managed to respond.
With 8:57 minutes to go, senior guard Chaundee Brown Jr. drilled a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the corner. Minutes later, he again found the back of the net, stretching the Michigan lead to eight.
Brown, bouncing back down the court, turned around to face thousands of Michigan fans, thrusting his arms into the air and basking in his newfound glory. The Wolverines, after 34 minutes spent enduring punches, could taste it.
With 3:56 minutes to play, the tide turned permanently. Sophomore wing Franz Wagner, scuffling throughout most of the game, drained an off-the-dribble 3-pointer, putting Michigan up a game-high nine. On his way back down the court, he pounded his chest, arms raised in celebration.
At last, the pesky Tigers relented, long faces draping their countenances.
Michigan danced up the tunnel. Howard, lingering behind for a radio interview, was the last man off the court. Motioning to the fans on hand, he held up four fingers — one for each victory the Wolverines need to capture a championship.
“The motto of today was, the words that were shared with the group: empty the tank, empty the tank,” Howard said. “Our guys did that.”
And finally, they could let out a collective sigh of relief.
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