INDIANAPOLIS — Jordan Morgan had a message for the all the experts picking against Michigan the day before the Wolverines were set to take on Tennessee.
“Keep picking us to lose,” the fifth-year senior forward said. “We’ll keep making you look bad.”
Again, the Michigan men’s basketball team was a popular pick to be upset by a team with an imposing front line, and again, Morgan, along with a ferocious offensive attack that at times looked impossible to stop, was enough for a win.
The Wolverines won, 73-71, to advance to a second straight Elite Eight, where they’ll play the winner of tonight’s Louisville-Kentucky matchup on Sunday.
In one of its most efficient first halves of the season, the Wolverines took an 11-point lead into halftime, but Michigan’s offense went cold late, allowing the Volunteers to get back in it, but it was too little, too late.
A turnover from sophomore guard Caris LeVert — one of two Michigan turnovers in the game’s final moments — gave Tennessee a chance to win it with nine seconds, but Morgan drew an offensive foul on Tennessee superstar Jarnell Stokes with six seconds left, allowing the Wolverines to hang on.
The charge, which was highly criticized — even Morgan said he was “maybe” a little bit surprised it was even called — was reminiscent of Morgan’s charge that sealed the team’s Final Four victory over Syracuse in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“I knew it was a charge myself, but as far as them actually calling it and getting it right, I don’t know,” Morgan said.
The Volunteers went on an 11-2 run after trailing 70-60 with 3:40 remaining thanks to a suddenly disjointed and flustered Michigan offense that struggled with inbounds and full-court pressure.
Still, though, Tennessee shot a respectable 50 percent from the field, led by a game-high 13 points from Richardson, who shot 6-of-8 from the field in the stanza.
“They squeezed us in a couple traps where we could’ve shown more poise,” said Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan. “We’ve just got to be stronger with the ball next time, but we’re thankful that there is a next time.”
Trailing 21-20 midway through the opening stanza, Michigan reeled off a 16-4 run. Not surprisingly, most of the damage came from outside. In part of a nine-point night, freshman guard Zak Irvin knocked down the first two 3-pointers to give the Wolverines a lead they would never surrender. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas also chipped in with a 3-pointer in an otherwise cold shooting night. He missed 5-of-8 from deep but still scored 14 points.
Michigan (28-8) spent most of the second half with a double-digit lead before the Volunteers, on the backs of guards Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson, made things interesting at the end.
Tennessee came within five points on multiple late-game possessions, and even cut its deficit to three with 23 seconds to go, but a better-than-expected Wolverine defense was enough to hold off the Volunteers.
Despite missing all five of his 3-point attempts, McRae was able to repeatedly get in the lane for layups to score a game-high 24 points, while Richardson chipped in with 17 of his own.
But the vaunted Volunteer (24-13) frontcourt was never able to impose its will on Michigan. Stokes, Tennessee’s leading scorer, was held to 11 points and five rebounds — both well below his NCAA Tournament average of 20.3 points and 15 boards. His frontcourt counterpart, Jeronne Maymon, was supposed to have his way with sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III in the post, but the mismatch went the other way. Maymon had more fouls (4) than points (3) or rebounds (2), while Robinson’s speed exposed the Tennessee defense to the tune of 13 points and five boards.
“I just tried not to back down from the challenge,” Robinson said. “He was a little bit slower and we used that, I attacked him.
“They had to sit him down because he couldn’t guard me.”
Still, though, Morgan was the story. The fifth-year senior led the Wolverines with 15 points and seven rebounds as he continues to play the best basketball — offensively and defensively — of his career. The Volunteers did outrebound Michigan, 28-26, though the margin wasn’t near the lopsided one many projected.
No play, though, was bigger than the charge.
“It was just typical J-Mo, coming out with big plays,” said sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht. “It was poetic justice, man.”
Each team had its way offensively in the first half, but the Wolverines’ offense was too much to handle, giving them a 45-34 lead at the break. To offset an uncharacteristic six turnovers, Michigan shot a whopping 77.8 percent from 3-point range thanks to a 7-of-9 mark, and 61.5 percent from the field. In spite of the turnovers, which Tennessee turned into seven points — perhaps the only thing keeping itself in the ball game — Michigan’s offense averaged 1.45 points per possession.
Stauskas led the Wolverines with 10 first-half points, but Robinson was the story early on, scoring eight points, pulling down four rebounds while holding Maymon scoreless after drawing two quick fouls on the forward.
There’s a Final Four mantra that the teams that advance deep into the Tournament must survive one scare. In last year’s Sweet 16, the Wolverines stunned Kansas with a late-game comeback that was awfully close to going against Michigan.
“We don’t like it to be this way, but that’s just how it’s been,” Albrecht said. “We’ve been resilient. We’ve done a great job hanging in there when things start going against us, against the grain.”
A few minutes later, as he was coming off the court, Morgan shouted to no one in particular, “Mismatch my ass.”