ARLINGTON, Texas – Move aside, Fab Five. Another group of Michigan youngsters is doing big things.
Michigan, with three freshman starters and six first-year players in its rotation, made Sunday’s NCAA South Region final a rout from the start.
The Wolverines scored the game’s first 13 points and were never threatened by Florida in a 79-59 romp at Cowboys Stadium.
“To see it all come together for them today, because it’s really about the kids . . . I don’t know what to say,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I’m a little bit speechless.”
Michigan’s march through the South will end in a trip to Atlanta for its first Final Four since the Fab Five (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, et al) were sophomores in 1993. The Wolverines will match up with Syracuse on Saturday.
Florida, the No. 3 seed in the South to Michigan’s No. 4, saw its season end in the Elite Eight for the third season in a row. The Gators are the first team to lose three straight regional finals since the tournament was expanded in 1985.
“This is a totally different feel than the last two,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “The last two we gave ourselves every opportunity to win . . . This game we didn’t play well enough or deserve to win the game.”
Florida (29-8) came into the game with a reputation for defense, but that was quickly shredded by a versatile Michigan (30-7) offense.
Florida missed its first six shots and quickly found itself trailing, 16-2, less than five minutes in. Michigan continued to press its advantage for a 47-30 halftime lead.
Michigan’s 47 first-half points were the most allowed in a half by Florida this season. Holding Florida to 30 in the first half was just as significant.
“We didn’t even worry about offense, we knew that would come,” Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “Defensively, everybody was just locking down, getting stops, getting rebounds. We were just running and gunning and having fun.”
Trey Burke, Michigan’s gifted sophomore point guard, was in full command with 15 points and seven assists, while freshman big man Mitch McGary contributed 11 points and nine rebounds.
But it was freshman Nik Stauskas who was the offensive star in the first half with a 5-of-5 performance from three-point range.
Stauskas repeatedly was left open in the corner for three-pointers. He wound up 6 of 6 from beyond the arc and a game-high 22 points
“It’s all a result of Burke,” Florida’s Donovan said. “He’s got such speed and quickness, when he turns a corner you provide help. You’ve got to give help on McGary rolling to the basket, and he [Burke] skips it across the floor.
“Some of the threes that Stauskas got off was our fault, and some of it was really, really good offense by them.”
Even with Michigan’s dominance in the first half, common sense said that Florida would mount a challenge after regrouping at halftime.
If the Gators had a run in them, it got snuffed by a four-point swing off a Florida mistake.
A jumper by Florida’s Kenny Boynton cut Michigan’s lead to 12 points, 50-38, with 15:44 left. After McGary answered with a layup, Michigan’s Spike Albrecht flashed through traffic and stole the inbounds pass by Will Yeguete for a quick score.
Just like that Florida was down by 16 again. There would be no Easter miracle for the Gators.
“That was kind of a risk/reward play,” Albrecht said. “If I missed it, Coach Beilein would probably have been pretty upset with me, so I’m just happy it went our way.”
Everything went Michigan’s way on Sunday. Now the young Wolverines have a chance to do something the Fab Five couldn’t accomplish in two trips to the Final Four: win the whole thing.
“A lot of people said we were too young, we weren’t tough enough,” Michigan’s Burke said. “But I definitely think that’s why we played with a chip on our shoulder over the last couple of weeks. And it feels great just to be going to Atlanta with a team like this.”