Morgan plays the hero as Michigan sweats out victory
INDIANAPOLIS — Thirty-five or so minutes of Michigan Sweet 16 domination came a few seconds from being erased.
When the game’s biggest moment came, Michigan senior Jordan Morgan was in the right place — as he was all night.
A Michigan lead that had been 11 at halftime, as many as 15 with 10:56 left and 10 with 3:40 left was cut to just one in the final 10 seconds, and Tennessee had the ball. As had been the primary plan since the game’s very first possession, the Vols went to Jarnell Stokes and he went baseline against Morgan.
A charge was called. A wild, prolonged finish that included two replay reviews to determine possiession eventually led to Michigan winning, 73-71, after leading by as many as 10 in the final four minutes.
"They set a screen for (Stokes) to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him," Morgan said. "And I just know he likes to play bully ball, he’s in a stance ready.
"I don’t know. I just was there. It’s just something I do. I take charges. That’s what I do."
Said Stokes: "No, I don’t think I fouled him. But it was a smart play for him to try to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it."
Michigan beat Tennessee to the spot almost all night. The Wolverines passed Tennessee dizzy and usually hit the open shot, but even before the Vols made enough of their own and started clawing back, Morgan made timely plays that affected the outcome beyond the one that everyone remembers.
Morgan had 15 points and 7 rebounds, leading Michigan (28-8) in both categories. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Stokes, who’d been averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in three prior NCAA tournament wins, was held to 11 and 6. Jordan McRae (24 points) rallied Tennessee, but it wasn’t enough.
Tennessee came into Friday night’s game with an interior bulk advantage and a gameplan built around throwing the ball inside. Michigan opened the floor and got its preferred tempo early with the help of a lights out, 7-of-9 performance on 3-point shots in the first half, but the presence of Morgan — he’s listed at 6’8, 250 — at both ends ended up being just as important.
"We heard all week about they had mismatches and how we couldn’t guard them inside," Morgan said. "I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten and we won the Big Ten outright, so we’re not really soft around here. That’s not who we are. We lift a lot of weights.
"So it’s just, I don’t know. It’s a pride thing for us. We’re not about to get punked."
The dangerous Wolverines (28-8) dance on to Sunday’s Midwest regional final.
"It’s not just the play at the end," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "It’s the plays in the middle of the game. The whole thing is these kids always believe and they never stop. They just never stop believing we’re going to win the game.
"We got just enough stops. And, remember, it’s a real young team. They’re experiencing so much of this really on a first or second time of college. The experience showed in Jordan Morgan. He’s been through a lot of these."
Michigan lifts a lot of weights and shoots a lot of 3-pointers so it can be ready for this stage, and even though Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are in the NBA and Mitch McGary is on the bench recovering from back surgery, these Wolverines are one win from a second straight Final Four because Morgan, Nik Stauskas (14 points) and Glenn Robinson III (13) are handling the leadership duties and contributions — like freshman Zak Irvin’s three 3-pointers — are coming from everywhere. Five Michigan players scored 9 or more points; the same five hit at least one 3-pointer, too.
The Wolverines almost cracked — it went from 70-60 to 72-71 before the crucial final charge call — but held on despite Tennessee’s 44-28 edge in points in the paint and 16-5 edge in points off turnovers. Slow and steady won the race because Morgan kept showing up in the right spots.
"Certainly a lot of drama at the end, but we’ve had a lot of that this year," Beilein said. "A win is a win."
At this point in March, that’s all that matters.