CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For a while, the outcome of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee on Friday afternoon was in doubt.
Then the second half started.
The Wolverines exploded out of the break, going on a 21-4 run to take a commanding lead, and never looked back en route to a 75-45 win over the Volunteers.
“It started on the defensive end, definitely, (with us) getting some stops,” said redshirt freshman forward Jordan Morgan, who finished with 10 points. “And as soon as we saw the ball start to go in, guys were getting confidence. It just kind of got going. It felt like we couldn’t miss.”
Added junior guard Zack Novak: “It seems like everything you throw up is going to go in (during a run like that). That’s just being in the zone or whatever it is. It’s a great, great feeling.”
Michigan’s outburst was somewhat shocking to anybody who saw the first half — for much of the game’s beginning, the Wolverines couldn’t buy a bucket. Tennessee applied strong pressure on the ball, and used its athleticism to prevent the Wolverines from cutting and moving cleanly off the ball.
As a result, sophomore point guard Darius Morris often had to resort to poor attempts late in the shot clock. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team also limited its turnovers early, handcuffing Morris’s strong transition game.
But the Volunteer defense completely fell apart after the break. Michigan found holes in Tennessee’s man-to-man scheme with ease. Novak — who led the team in scoring with 14 points — hit two 3-pointers and Morgan added two layups to spark the Wolverine attack.
Junior guard Stu Douglass’s powerful two-handed transition drunk with 4:12 remaining in the game put an exclamation mark on what Novak called Michigan’s best performance of the year.
But for Michigan coach John Beilein, the team’s enormous lead for much of the second half didn’t mean he was resting easy.
“I think when (the lead) went over 20 (is when I started to notice it),” Beilein said. “There’s a couple markers that usually trigger me a little bit — over 10 and then over 20. When it got over 20, I said, ‘This would not be good if we blow this lead right now.’ ”
The Wolverines’ sluggishness in the first half was due in part to the absence of Morgan and freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who both had to sit for much of the frame due to foul trouble.
Morgan played just four minutes in the first half, and Hardaway Jr. was on the court for just 11. The Volunteers took advantage of Michigan’s weakened low post defense by going to forward Tobias Harris.
Tennessee knew it would be able to exploit Harris’s matchup with the 6-foot-4 Novak, and it did. Harris finished easily almost every time he got the ball in the post, whether the Wolverines helped on him or not — he scored the first eight points for the Volunteers and finished with 19 for the half.
But after going down 23-17, Michigan fought back, led by Matt Vogrich. The sophomore guard had several key energy plays, including a steal and subsequent fast-break layup to give his team the lead again.
Vogrich’s steal came immediately after the Wolverines switched to their 1-3-1 zone defense late in the first half. The scheme stymied the Volunteers, allowing Michigan to enter the break up 33-29, with added rare contributions from first-year forwards Colton Christian and Blake McLimans.
“(It) definitely (speaks) to our bench,” Morgan said. “It was good for our bench to come in and take us into halftime with a lead. It gave us a lot of confidence going into the second half. They did a really good job of stepping up today.”
The Wolverines rode their newfound momentum into the second half and buckled down defensively — Harris didn’t score again after the break. After a while, it appeared that Tennessee simply decided to give up. The Volunteers admitted as much after the game.
“We just didn’t play with no heart out there,” Harris said. “I mean, Michigan came out, made shots, and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them, and on the offensive end we rushed too many shots and, you know, basically you just quit.”
But while Tennessee faltered, the Wolverines only got stronger.
“It was just important that we got the win,” Novak said. “We came here with a definite goal, to advance out of this first mini portion of the tournament. We’re halfway there.”