DAYTON, Ohio — The Michigan men’s basketball team got the NCAA Tournament bid it was sweating for on Selection Sunday — as a No. 11 seed playing in the First Four at University of Dayton Arena — and it initially looked like it received a favorable opponent as well.
After the bracket was released, no team in the field received more criticism than the Wolverines’ opponent, fellow No. 11 seed Tulsa. Even though the Golden Hurricane finished the season with a 20-11 record, most experts had them projected well on the wrong side of the bubble after they lost to Memphis by 22 points in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
But once the game actually began Wednesday night, it progressed as a back-and-forth affair.
Both teams traded leads throughout the second half, and Tulsa found itself leading, 60-59, with a minute to play. But junior forward Zak Irvin — just six days after hitting the game-winner against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament — had more heroics left in him.
With 53 seconds remaining, Irvin hit a 3-pointer to put the Wolverines back on top, saving their season once again. Michigan (23-12) iced the game from the free-throw line and escaped with a 67-62 victory, advancing to a first-round matchup with No. 6 seed Notre Dame in Brooklyn on Friday.
“(Irvin’s) just got that mentality,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “No matter how many he’s missed, when the moment is big and the shot really matters, you can count on him to take and make that shot.”
Michigan led 28-20 at halftime thanks to a late offensive surge, but early second-half foul trouble — which left Walton on the bench for nearly six minutes — allowed Tulsa (20-12) to jump right back into the game.
After a rapid series of lead changes, it was the Wolverines who first showed signs of pulling away when redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson knocked down a 3-pointer to put Michigan up 47-45. Irvin knocked down a mid-range jumper and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to six with 7:38 to play. But the Golden Hurricane refused to go down, continuing to attack the rim with layup after layup and ultimately retaking the lead with 4:24 to play.
The two teams played within three points of each other right up until Irvin finally delivered the dagger, and he and Walton helped the Wolverines pull away at the charity stripe for another nail-biting win — their third in a week.
“We haven’t had too many close games (this year),” Irvin said. “The Big Ten Tournament definitely helped us out. We’re able to finish close games. We know we’ve gotta be able to do that in the NCAA Tournament — survive and advance.”
Irvin and Abdur-Rahkman each had a game-high 16 points, with Abdur-Rahkman adding a big shot of his own — a banked jump shot with just under four minutes to play that Michigan coach John Beilein called a “nine out of 10” degree of difficulty.
Robinson, meanwhile, attempted to shed his reputation as a pure shooter by playing one of his best all-around games of the year, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
“If somebody told me he’d get a double-double, I could see 10 threes in game — I wouldn’t have believed 11 rebounds,” Beilein said. “He’s just learning the game, the college game (is) played against really good players.”
The second-half scoring frenzy stood in stark contrast to the first half, in which both teams fell victim to lengthy scoring droughts.
Robinson started off the game with a 3-pointer and freshman forward Moritz Wagner sparked the Wolverines early with a dunk, two rebounds, a block and a steal in his first minute on the court.
But Michigan’s shooting quickly went cold. The Wolverines started the game 3-for-16 from the floor and 1-for-9 from three, falling into a 6:13 scoring drought that allowed the Golden Hurricane to take a 16-9 lead midway through the half.
But Irvin knocked down a triple to snap Michigan out of its funk, and Tulsa embarked on a 6:36 scoreless stretch of its own. Walton — who struggled with his shot in the Big Ten Tournament and most of the first half of the game Wednesday — also sprang to life with 10 points in the final four minutes of the half, including two 3-pointers.
It was the same story in the second half for Irvin and Walton, who woke up in the nick of time to keep the Wolverines’ tournament run alive.