It wasn't easy, nor was it always pretty, but Michigan survived a late Syracuse rally and outlasted the Orange in the national semi-finals Saturday night. Michigan, which played brilliantly in the first half, came undone a bit in the second half and had to endure an agonizing final few minutes. But in the end, the Wolverines held onto the lead, held off the Orange and advanced to national championship game, where they'll face the tournament's top overall seed, Louisville.
The Wolverines advanced because of another monster performance from Mitch McGary, whose legend continues to grow. Making just his seventh collegiate start, McGary tallied ten points, 12 rebounds and career-high six assists. Whether whipping cross-court passes from the high post, delivering no-look passes down low or even leading the break, McGary found open teammates time and again, helping neutralize Syracuse's vaunted zone. But McGary certainly didn't do it alone, and on a night when consensus national player of the year Trey Burke was held to just one field goal, Michigan found offense from the unlikeliest of sources, as freshmen reserves Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert each knocked down a pair of three-pointers, helping ignite a first half run that propelled Michigan to an 11-point halftime lead, a lead they would never surrender.
But what's more surprising, that two players who took just over 100 shots between them during the entire regular season kick-started the Wolverines in such a critical moment or that Albrecht and LeVert are on the team at all?
A year ago, the mood in Ann Arbor could not have been more different. Michigan had not only lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to John Groce's Ohio Bobcats, but Trey Burke was reportedly seriously considering jumping to the NBA. Faced with the possibility of not having a point guard on his roster for the 2012-13 season, Michigan coach John Beilein hastily reached out to little known and lightly regarded high school point guard Spike Albrecht. How lightly regarded? Prior to being contacted by Michigan, Appalachian State, a school well known to Michigan fans, was the only school to show interest in Albrecht. Albrecht committed to Michigan, and when Burke ultimately returned for his sophomore season, Albrecht settled into a back-up point guard role, occasionally sharing the floor with Burke.
Around the same time, Illinois completed its coaching search by hiring Groce away from Ohio, a move that likely wouldn't have happened had Groce's Bobcats not upset Michigan and subsequently advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Until that point, Caris LeVert had been an Ohio commitment, but after Groce left, LeVert re-opened his recruiting and ultimately landed at Michigan.
Who would have thoughts the seeds of a championship game appearance could have been sown during those dark days in Ann Arbor a year ago? But here Albrecht and LeVert are and here Michigan is, one game away from a national championship.
But Michigan will need more than another solid performance from McGary and contributions from complementary players Monday night. To beat Louisville, Michigan will need its stars to shine. If Michigan fans need some encouragement, there's this: Michigan defeated Florida and Syracuse despite having its best offensive players, Burke & Tim Hardaway Jr., shoot a combined 13-53 from the field over the those two games. One would think that they are due for a breakout game. And if Michigan can get strong performances from Burke and Hardaway while continuing to get help from others, there just might be one more celebration left in Michigan's season.