Michigan advances to Sweet 16 on Jordan Poole buzzer-beating prayer

Sunday, March 18, 2018 - 12:25am

Somehow, some way.

His legs flailing each and every direction and a defender square in his face, Jordan Poole caught a pass on the right wing from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and hoisted a prayer.

And as the ball found sweet nylon, the prayer was granted — somehow, some way — in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The freshman guard darted to the opposite side of the court, greeted by the rest of his jubialant team as they celebrated an astonishing 64-63 win.

It was a miracle on the Great Plains the likes of which will live in Michigan lore right alongside the Trey Burke shot and the Denard Robinson pass at Under the Lights I.

“I was thirsty,” Poole told a swath of reporters after the game. “Definitely thirsty. Because I’ve been hitting shots like that in practice all year. I just felt like I always wanted to be in a situation like that at the end in the game, and my teammates constantly tell me that I’ve got ice in my veins.

“I definitely dreamed about this a long time. Actually, before I went out there on there, I thought, ‘What if I hit this shot right now as a freshman?’ ”

And that he did. On this stage. With these implications. Somehow, some way, the only player with the personality to match the grand moment found the ball with 0.8 seconds and a season teetering in the balance.

Now Michigan will head to Los Angeles next weekend to play its fourth Sweet Sixteen game in six years on the back of a monstrous defense and one lucky St. Patrick’s Day heave.

“I don’t have any words for that one,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. “It’s incredible. That’s all I got.”

Somehow, some way.

For much of the game, though, there appeared to be no way.

For the second consecutive game, Michigan’s offense fell victim to offensive lulls that threatened its survival in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines went to the first TV timeout once again without a made field goal, this time trailing 6-1, having missed their first seven shots including six threes.

Robinson broke the seal nearly six minutes in, nailing a deep three with a hand in his face. He did it again on the next possession, pumping up his bench on the gallop back down the court.

That was the tone all night, on both sides — a tough, physical street fight. It’s a style Michigan has come to relish this season.

For all the talk about Cougars guard Rob Gray offensively — coming off a 39-point performance against San Diego State — it was the defense on both ends that controlled the game.

Gray, the alpha and omega of Houston’s offense, couldn’t find his rhythm in the first half, thanks to a swarming defensive effort from Michigan guards Zavier Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman. Gray finished with 23, but on 8-of-22 shooting.

“We just tried to limit his threes, make him score tough twos,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “He made a lot of them, but that’s all you can really do, is try to force him into contested shots.”

On the flip side, a physical Houston man defense held the Wolverines in check, stifling Michigan’s pick-and-roll action with athleticism, holding it so just 30 percent from the field. By the end of the game, a dejected Wolverines bench thought that would be the culprit of its dying season.

“They were down because we did some things that aren’t winning basketball today — just a few, but just enough,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But credit Houston. They made us make some of those plays.”

At half, the game was tied at 28, those struggles leaving the game back where it started, just with a few more bumps and bruises.

And while the bumps and bruises didn’t subside, the lid on the buckets slowly did.

Then, it was game on.

With 17 lead changes and 12 ties in total, neither team took firm control until Gray began to come to life midway through the half. He scored eight of his team’s 10 points at one point, nabbing a six point lead with 10:43 left on an inexplicably wide-open three.

But the see-saw swung right back. Michigan fought through recurring offensive demons, finishing the game with just 36 percent shooting. 

And it has more than just one fortuitous bounce to thank for the escape.

Down 51-46 with just over five minutes left, Matthews shot a 3-pointer off the back of the rim. It careened high into the air and through the hoop just as a Houston forward was whistled for a foul. Teske made both free throws, and suddenly a 51-46 game became 51-51 in only a single possession.

The teams traded blows from there, with the Cougars grabbing what seemed to be the final lead with 44 seconds left on two free-throws from forward Devin Davis.

But that wasn't the last of Michigan’s season. It just couldn't be. There was a little more than a strong breeze flowing through Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday night. Sophomore center Jon Teske could just feel it.

“I actually told CJ (Baird), I didn’t think we were gonna go home,” Teske said. “I felt something special was going to happen and I’m just glad he knocked that down. … It’s something I will always remember.”

And in a wild back and forth affair, it all came down to a howling freshman, with the confidence to belt “Ham” — the team’s nickname for Abdur-Rahkman — with the season on the line. The call was “Tennessee,” the same full-court inbound play run to beat Maryland early in the season as time expired. The senior caught the pass at midcourt and then put his season and career in the hands of Poole, who answered the faith with one of the most historic shots in program history.

“I knew they were not going to let me shoot the ball. So I was looking for JP,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I knew he could knock it down.

Literally, he makes it all the time in practice.”

And as the entire team piled on Poole under the hoop, cheers reigned down from the traveling Michigan crowd and band.

“It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.”