Three Hits: Michigan edges Tennessee to return to Elite Eight

Nik Stauskas had 14 points as the Wolverines held off Jarnell Stokes' Volunteers to return to the Elite Eight.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

What started as an offensive showcase turned into a matter of survival.

Michigan’s 13-point lead dwindled to one with 13 seconds to play as Tennessee went on a furious second-half run. But the No. 2 seed Wolverines held on to win 73-71 Friday, punching a second straight trip to the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, the 11th-seeded Volunteers rode a First Four berth to a surprise run that may have solidified their coach’s future — if he wants to stay.

Here are three observations from the regional semifinal in Indianapolis.

Tennessee’s success has been predicated upon its defense, which is rated 15th in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, and the Vols came in allowing an average of 54 points in their past eight games. The Wolverines were closing in on that figure by halftime with 45 points, which were the most the Vols had given up in any game this season.

There simply was no stopping Michigan in the opening 15 minutes, as it shot 60 percent, missing just six shots, and was 7-of-9 on three-pointers. That effectiveness from behind the arc only made things easier inside on Jordan Morgan, who had seven points.

FOUL BALL

That red-hot shooting masked six first-half turnovers and the defense wasn’t strong, as Tennessee shot 50 percent. But as the shooters cooled, with the Wolverines at 41.6 percent in the second half (10 of 24), they turned the ball over seven more times, including four in the last two minutes.

The last two of those saw Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes swipe the ball from Glenn Robinson III to cut the lead to 72-71, then Caris LeVert stepping on the line on an inbounds play gave the Vols a chance to win with 10 seconds remaining.

Michigan still is dancing, but an inability to put Tennessee away when the game appeared out of hand is going to raise some concerns.

This tournament run was Cuonzo Martin’s vindication. More than 36,000 fans had signed an online petition to remove the Tennessee coach in favor of the man he replaced, Bruce Pearl. There were rumblings of buying out the final $1.56 million on his deal.

Final Four . . . for four

But that was before the First Four win over Iowa, a second-round victory vs. UMass and ripping Cinderella Mercer by 20 to reach the Sweet 16.

Athletic director Dave Hart has yet to offer any statement on whether Martin will be retained, though he offered his coach a congratulatory postgame hug after beating Mercer.

Now, Vols fans have created a new petition, this one calling for Martin to get a raise and an extension. He certainly would seem in line for both of those things. The question is, will he bite? Will the lack of public support before the tournament lead him to look at openings at Boston College, Marquette or Wake Forest?

Suddenly, Martin’s future looks to be in his hands, a change in the narrative from before this tourney started.

The mere fact that the Volunteers managed to get within one after Michigan’s first-half shooting was impressive. But if not for a controversial charge on Jarnell Stokes with six seconds left in the game, things could have been that much more interesting.

To review: After LeVert stepped out of bounds with 10 seconds to go, Stokes took the inbounds pass and on a drive with Morgan on him, was whistled for a charge. It was basically game over after that, as Nik Stauskas hit one of two free throws and Tennessee had to settle on a desperation heave at the buzzer.

Here is that key sequence, via The Big Lead, showing the call on Stokes. You be the judge.