Michigan shot 55.1% from the floor, 11 of 20 for 55.0% from the arc, and 80% at the free throw line. The Wolverines are one of the best offensive teams in college basketball, and boy was it on display tonight. Those numbers are good enough to carry this team to the title.
They were most impressive in the first half when Michigan opened 8 of 11 from three. Tennessee played step-for-step for the first ten minutes, holding a 21-20 lead. For the next twenty minutes, Michigan did their thing and threatened to demoralize the Vols, building to a 60-45 lead with 10:57 to go. The Wolverines were on pace to become the first team to score 80 points on the Vols all year.
Tennessee didn't quit.
The build was slow: an 8-0 run cut the lead to seven with 7:55 to go, but Michigan made timely buckets to prevent the Vols from getting any closer than six for the next six minutes. A Nik Stauskas three with 3:41 to go put Michigan back up ten, 70-60. But the Vols pulled the dagger out. A three point play from Jordan McRae cut the lead back to five with 1:56 to go. After Jordan Morgan lost the ball out of bounds, McRae again slashed to the hole but came up just short, as did the tip by Armani Moore, leaving the Wolverines up five with the ball with 1:23 to go. They used every second, literally, as the Vols forced a shot clock violation and got it back down five with 39 seconds to go. A Josh Richardson deuce made it 72-69 with 26 seconds go.
But the Vols had only committed three fouls in the second half, and couldn't put Michigan on the line with the quickness. So we fouled, and we fouled, and then on the third inbounds attempt finally forced a turnover leading to a quick layup for McRae and a one point game with 11 seconds to go.
And then, inexplicably, Caris LeVert stepped out of bounds while fielding a pass, and Tennessee had the ball on its own end, down one with 9.6 seconds left, and a chance to win the game. At that point, Michigan had turned the ball over four possessions in a row.
What happened next will be the story from our end, I'm sure. But don't forget the setup. Tennessee could've folded, but they rallied. They rallied despite being unable to utilize their primary strength with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon; Stokes finished with just 11 points and 6 rebounds, while Maymon was hampered with foul trouble all night and got just a deuce. The Vols rallied despite only out-rebounding Michigan by two. If you'd told us coming in Michigan was going to shoot 55% from three and we were going to out-rebound them by two, visions of 2011 would've been dancing in our heads.
But the Vols rallied. Michigan scored 45 in the first half and 28 in the second half. Tennessee got a dozen points from its bench, a very encouraging sign going forward. Cuonzo Martin put the game in Darius Thompson's hands as his point guard down the stretch, and Thompson facilitated the charge while playing the best defense he's played all year. That kid has a future.
Tennessee did it with Jordan McRae, who scored 24 points and some of the game's biggest buckets but will leave thinking about that miss at the rim and the five free throws he left out there. He will also leave as one of the twenty best scorers in the history of Tennessee Basketball. I hope he gets his head up soon, because he's earned it.
And the Vols did it with Josh Richardson, who has changed the complexion of the 2015 season in two weeks. Tonight it was 19 points on 9 of 14 shooting. Nik Stauskas is by far the best player Richardson has guarded during this run, and Michigan's All-American still had 14 points. But he was still under his season average, and Richardson was much better in the second half on him. Stauskas finished 5 of 12.
Tennessee didn't play its best game because it didn't necessarily play its game...but the Vols were still right there against the two seed Big Ten Champions with a chance to win with 9.6 seconds go to.
The charge call is one I think most basketball fans don't want to see in the game's most important possession. If I'm remembering correctly it was the only charge called in the game, which plays into the consistency conversation that should always be most important in officiating any sport. These guys are human like you and I and they won't get all of them right. But you want to see consistency overall in what is and isn't being called. Jordan Morgan and Jarnell Stokes went at each other physically all night. I don't like seeing any calls made that promote flopping, even if plenty of folks will consider it a "smart basketball play". I didn't like the call. I'm wearing orange, but I didn't like the call.
We'll remember the call. But don't forget this team. In two weeks Cuonzo Martin, he of zero NCAA Tournament appearances, has answered questions about what kind of team he can build for March emphatically. I'm excited to see what he'll build from here for Tennessee Basketball moving forward. And I'm very proud of the team that went through far more than any should have to but ended up bridging the gap between past and future for this program. It was, as it turns out, an extraordinarily heavy burden, and too few of us helped ease the load at times this year. But they carried it with class, even when too few of us returned the favor.
This is a program, a coach, and a team you can be proud of. I'm excited to see where Cuonzo Martin can take us from here.