ATLANTA - For the first time since 1993, Michigan will play for the NCAA men's basketball title.
Despite stumbling and bumbling down the stretch against Syracuse in Saturday night's second Final Four semifinal in the Georgia Dome, the Wolverines outlasted the Orange 61-56. They will face Louisville -- which beat Wichita State 72-68 in the first semifinal -- in Monday night's NCAA title game.
"We never know who's going to step up for us," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But Syracuse is a quality team and this feels great."
To look at the halftime stat sheet was to understand why Michigan led 36-25. No Wolverine had more than six points, but five players had at least five points and the UM bench owned a 16-7 lead over the 'Cuse reserves.
As CBS talking head Doug Gottlieb noted at the break, "Michigan is putting on an absolute clinic on how to attack a zone."
The Wolverines certainly were shooting holes in it, knocking down six 3-pointers in the opening period -- including two each from reserves Michael Albrecht and Caris Levert -- to just two for the Orange.
Beyond that, Michigan freshman center Mitch McGary continued putting up the kind of numbers -- six points, seven rebounds, four assists -- that had TV analyst Charles Barkley label him the Wolverines' "best player for the entire tournament."
But solving Syracuse's 2-3 zone for a full 40 minutes figured to be more daunting. The Orange had squeezed the life out of every offense they'd faced -- including Indiana, which had been one of the nation's fifth highest scoring offense for the year -- but managed just 50 points in their Sweet 16 meeting.
And sure enough -- just as fellow Big East deserter Louisville had begun its climb back against Wichita State at the 13-minute mark of the final half -- Syracuse trimmed a double-digit deficit to six (45-39) by the 12:43 mark.
Then a C.J. Fair jumper pulled the Orange within three (48-45) with 7:41 to go, forcing Michigan to burn the third of its five timeouts. The Wolverines had hit only one field goal in more than five minutes.
That's also where the comeback momentarily died for Syracuse, however. The Orange went on their own scoring drought -- a span of more than four minutes. Michigan totaled five in that span to go in front 53-45 at the final media timeout with 3:38 to play.
Syracuse did pull within four inside the final two minutes, but the Wolverines' Tim Hardaway hit two free throws at 1:19 to move the lead back to six, and then Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams fouled out four seconds later, finishing with just two points after averaging 13 points in the team's first four games of the tournament.
Even then, Syracuse wouldn't die, pulling within one point inside the final 30 seconds. But after missing four straight free throws, the Wolverines barely hung on for the victory.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org