INDIANAPOLIS — There’s an old saying in Indiana — and everywhere the sport is played — that basketball is a game of runs.
The track meet that was the Michigan men’s basketball team’s second-round, 86-78 win against LSU on Monday night certainly lived up to that adage.
After a late first-half surge got them back in the game, the Wolverines held a slim one-point lead over the Tigers at halftime. Virtually deadlocked coming out of the break, both teams had everything to play for.
LSU went on a quick 8-2 run to regain the lead and momentum. Every time the Tigers threatened to pull away, though, Michigan had an answer. Graduate guard Mike Smith and senior guard Eli Brooks hit consecutive 3-pointers to stop LSU’s scoring spurt in its tracks.
“Our guys kept grinding it, grinding it,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Each possession, we got stops when we needed it. We also continued to attack the basket and not settle. But we also made some good shots that were open.”
Throughout the half, the teams went back and forth, trading six and seven-point runs. For a while it seemed like whichever team’s run coincided with the final buzzer would advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Wolverines, grounded by their veterans, not only withstood the barrage, but wouldn’t let that scenario come to be.
After knocking down two free throws, senior guard Chaundee Brown Jr. hit one of his three triples on the night to put Michigan up by eight at the 5:57 minute mark. The Tigers tried to recover, but the Wolverines had had enough of the game’s seesawing nature.
“(My teammates and coaches) told me before the game, ‘Come in and be aggressive, just play basketball,’ ” Brown said. “I had a talk with myself before the game, ‘Just be you.’ I feel like I did that.”
Michigan’s advantage would only vacillate from six to 10 the rest of the way.
“We couldn’t string together enough stops,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “We could just never string together enough stops to make a run and to expand our lead. … After we got the six-point lead, we gave up a couple threes, we missed a floater in the lane. We could never sustain what we were doing.”
Added Brooks: “To be honest, it was just about wearing on them, making everything tough. … It was mostly just staying the course.”
Howard had told his team that a win against the Tigers would require them to “empty the tank.” Facing a do-or-die situation, the Wolverines responded in a big way. Having experienced back-and-forth contests throughout the Big Ten season, Michigan had been in a similar position before. The Wolverines were never fazed and delivered the knockout blow when the opportunity presented itself.
“We (didn’t) wanna go back to the hotel regretting ‘I shoulda did this, I coulda did this,’ ” Brown said. “We have an off day tomorrow, go all out. I feel like that really sticks to all of us. Like (Howard) says all the time, we want to rest on April 6.”
Thanks to the cool heads of veterans like Brooks and Brown, the Wolverines won’t be resting for very long.
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