KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Michigan men’s basketball team saw its NCAA Tournament hopes melting before its eyes.
After earning their first bid to the Big Dance in 11 years, the Wolverines nearly let a 16-point lead against Clemson slip away down the stretch.
That was until sophomore forward Manny Harris put Michigan’s postseason fate squarely on his shoulders in the final minute of the game.
As he jumped to the basket with 37 seconds left, he and the 10th-seeded Wolverines rose above being the underdogs in yesterday’s game and rose above demons of the program’s past. And with one flick of the wrist, Harris sealed Michigan’s first tournament win in over a decade.
He drew a foul and banked in a shot in the lane to propel the Wolverines to a 62-59 win over No. 7 seed Clemson last night. Harris scored 23 points, dished six assists and grabbed seven rebounds.
“Manny did tonight what he was doing all year,” fifth-year senior guard C.J Lee said. “We ask so much from him on a daily basis. He did a remarkable job of knowing when it was his time to takeover.”
The win is Michigan’s first tournament victory since it knocked off Davidson in the first round in 1998.
“Finally,” redshirt sophomore Anthony Wright said. “This is just for the team, the coaches, Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan. Just giving back to the fans because they’ve been waiting for this opportunity and it’s good to just give it back to them.”
But that “finally” almost didn’t happen. The Wolverines barely made the field of 65, but they rallied by reeling off six wins in their last nine games. And if Michigan lost, many fans still would have viewed this season as a success.
“To a lot of people, it probably feels like that,” Harris said. “To ourselves, we expected to win.”
For much of the second half, it looked like the Wolverines would cruise to a victory. With 12:51 left in the second half, Michigan held a 16-point lead and seemed unstoppable.
The 16-4 run by the Wolverines to start the half climaxed when Clemson guard Terrence Oglesby, the team’s third-leading scorer, was ejected for elbowing freshman Stu Douglass.
It was a feeling with which Michigan could empathize. Harris was ejected for elbowing Purdue’s Chris Kramer in the face earlier in the season.
“It’s frustrating,” Harris said. “You know there’s nothing you can do at that point. The only thing you can do is pray and hope that your team can win.”
But any prayers by Oglesby were nearly answered.
In a span of one minute and 23 seconds, Clemson hit three 3-pointers to cut its deficit to six.
“It was a quick thought when they started making the run, that ‘Hey, this could be the last time,’ ” fifth-year senior guard David Merritt said.
The Tigers grabbed five offensive rebounds and center Trevor Booker scored six points in the last three minutes to cut Michigan’s lead to just one before Harris hit his floater.
Clemson’s domination of the glass piqued at the end, but it was a problem for the Wolverines all night. On a possession in the first half, the Tigers grabbed three offensive rebounds.
Beilein was furious, directing his anger at Sims, who wasn’t crashing the boards for rebounds.
“Every time the ball goes up, you’re getting out of there,” Beilein said as Sims came to the bench.
Clemson out-rebounded the Wolverines 44-33, including 21-9 on the offensive glass.
But Beilein has stressed all season he doesn’t mind being out-rebounded if his team is making shots.
And the Wolverines did just that. Led by Harris, who hit 7-of-15 attempts, Michigan made 39.2 of its shots. Clemson finished with a 32.3 field-goal percentage.
The Wolverines will face No. 2 seed Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 5:50 p.m. Saturday.
And though the Sooners boast Player of the Year candidate Blake Griffin, the Wolverines don’t expect to lose.
“We’re not just here to win one,” Merritt said. “We’re here to win another one.”