The Michigan junior lost his starting spot at the start of the NCAA tournament, and has watched from the bench as Mitch McGary has become the star of March Madness.
Saturday, though, with his young teammates collapsing around him, Morgan stepped up and made the play against Syracuse that got the Wolverines into Monday’s national championship game.
With 19 seconds left, Brandon Triche was barreling down the lane, looking for the layup that would complete Syracuse’s comeback. Morgan, though, stepped in front of him and took the charge that kept Michigan in front.
“There’s a reason that Jordan’s one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten,” Tim Hardaway, Jr. said. “When we needed something, he stepped up and put his body on the line.”
Triche, a four-year starter for the Orange, had been trash-talking the Wolverines leading up to the game, saying that he felt his team was better at every position. Saturday, though, he realized he had made a career-ending mistake with the season on the line.
“I was just trying to make a play, but I needed to make a better decision,” Triche said. “I saw him, but I thought I could get to the rim. I should have pulled up.”
One missed shot later, and Morgan was throwing down an uncontested dunk as time ran out. The Wolverines had somehow held on for a 61-56 win and will face Louisville for the national title.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Morgan said. “It really hasn’t sunk in that we’re going to be playing for a national championship on Monday night.”
After 25 minutes, no one would have imagined that Morgan was going to even play a role in the game. McGary was ripping apart Syracuse’s fabled 2-3 zone with, of all things, pinpoint passing. The freshman hadn’t had more than two assists all season, but he dished out six against the Orange.
“Mitch McGary had a great game against us,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He really hurt us from the high post with his shooting and especially his passing.”
Add McGary’s 10 points and 12 rebounds, and it seemed certain that Morgan was going to spend another night as a cheerleader.
But as Syracuse started to pull closer and closer, McGary suddenly looked like a freshman. He missed three free throws and started to try passes that weren’t there.
“I think I’m a good passer, but some of the time I probably get a little too crazy,” he said. “I probably should have put the game away from the free-throw line, but Jordan came in and made the big play that we needed.”
McGary wasn’t the only one — the Wolverines were coming unraveled against the Syracuse defense, and even National Player of the Year Trey Burke couldn’t make an offensive play.
Burke missed 7 of his 8 shots, but held fellow point guard Michael Carter-Williams to two points on 1 of 6 shooting. He also finished with five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“It was just an off-night for me,” Burke said. “But we can always play defense. That’s how we won the game — with defensive stops down the stretch.”
Hardaway felt the same way after a 4-for-16 shooting night that continued the slump that started against Kansas and Florida.
“I can’t worry about my offense right now,” he said. “My shot isn’t falling, but I can still pass, and I can still rebound, and I can play defense. We all can play defense.”
And that’s why John Beilein went to Morgan, who was an all-Big Ten defender before giving way to McGary.
“It’s exciting, because the plays I made helped us keep our season going,” he said. “We’re one step away from achieving our goals and making history.”
After making the stop Michigan needed, Morgan showed off his vocal skills.
“Jordan was just up on the chair leading us in ‘The Victors’,” Beilein said. “He was in there to play defense, and that’s what he did. It was fitting that he got that dunk to end it.”
Morgan wasn’t the only reserve who got the Wolverines into the championship game. Freshmen guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert combined for 14 points, five rebounds and two assists.
“We know we have guys who can come off the bench and give us sparks,” Burke said. “We just never know who it is going to be from one game to the next.”
Monday, facing Rick Pitino’s press instead of Jim Boeheim’s zone, Burke will get another chance to shine. He’ll be facing a man defense where he and McGary can work the pick-and-roll that had worked so well in the first four games of the tournament.
It will probably be Burke’s last college game, but after what happened on Saturday, he knows he’ll be taking the Georgia Dome floor with a lot of help.