Michigan’s performance Friday night was night and day, as they went from an uber-efficient, confident, dominating first half performance to a fumbling mess at the end. But they held on to beat Tennessee and now head on to the Elite Eight.
Michigan came out firing against the Vols, scoring 45 points in the first half, thanks to a downpour of seven threes. Tennessee was able to match Michigan’s scoring early on, but the Wolverines were able to pull away to a 11 point halftime lead. All signs pointed to another easy Michigan win, as it seemed they had taken the Vols’ best punch and still had control of the game.
But Tennessee stuck to their game-plan of attacking inside. Jordan Morgan was a decent interior defender last night; he was atleast able to contest shots at the rim when he was in the paint, which for some reason was not that often. Too many times Tennessee players were able to drive in past their perimeter defender and have no more resistance between them and the rim. Like, literally, no resistance. When Jon Horford was in the game, he was so ineffective defensively that it didn’t much matter if he was positioned well. This allowed Tennessee to score 44 points in the paint, with Jordan McRae, a guard, scoring 24 points without hitting a single long jumper or three pointer.
While Michigan’s defensive efforts flopped, their offense had a rare sense of disarray. Caris Levert didn’t score in the second half, while Nik Stauskas had just two field goals. They always seemed to be on the verge of turning the ball over and that was often right before they actually did turn it over.
And yet, Michigan was able to keep control of the game, gripping on the a 7-15 point lead for much of the second half. But then the final two and a half minutes came and everything fell apart. Michigan didn’t make a basket in the final 2:22, but were able to turn it over 4 times consecutively. Tennessee, meanwhile, scored on 13 of their final 17 possessions and ended up having the chance for a game-winner with 9 seconds to go, only to be halted by a Morgan flop that was called a charge, more or less putting an end to the game.
Now that Michigan escaped that terror of a finish, Kentucky awaits. There was a polar juxtaposition in how the young Wildcats knocked off their rival Louisville Cardinals in a dramatic, sexy finish, compared to Michigan’s sloppy, faltering finish. But there are no style points; this isn’t college football. The cliche “survive and advance” is overused and annoying, but for Michigan that’s what they were able to do. They came oh-so-close to blowing that game and having their season end on an awful note, but that’s just a footnote.
The real story is that Michigan have advanced to their second consecutive Elite Eight. They’re going to play a Kentucky team on Sunday that makes the Wolverines look experienced veterans. It’s going to be a lot of fun, or the complete opposite of whatever the end of Michigan-Tennessee was.
You can follow Alex Dale on Twitter @alexdaleCFB