Upset bid falls short for GophersPublished 9:23am Monday, March 3, 2014
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Minnesota could have spoiled Michigan’s party Saturday night — if only they had held onto the ball.
The Wolverines had the 1989 national-championship team in the building, and Illinois’ upset of Michigan State gave them a chance to clinch a share of their second Big Ten title in three years.
The Golden Gophers didn’t make it easy. Ten minutes into the game, they led 15-9 and were looking for an upset that would give a huge boost to their NCAA tournament hopes.
Instead, the Wolverines started hitting open jumpers and the Golden Gophers committed seven first-half turnovers.
“Turnovers have been our Achilles’ heel all season, and they really hurt us in the first half,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We won the second half 36-35 because we stopped giving the ball away, but it was too late by that point.”
Once Michigan got rolling, the Golden Gophers found themselves watching Nik Stauskas hit 3-pointers and throw alley-oops to Glenn Robinson III. The Wolverines were up 31-20 at the half, and facing an uphill climb.
“They’re at home, and you know they’re going to bounce back,” Minnesota guard Austin Hollins said. “You just got to defend, contest every shot all the way out to the 3-point line — they’re one of the best 3-point-shooting teams in the country.”
Minnesota got as close as two points late in the game, but plays by Jordan Morgan and Spike Albrecht killed the Golden Gophers’ rally.
With just over four minutes to play, Minnesota was within 54-52 and the Wolverines missed a jumper. Morgan, though, forced a held ball on the rebound, and Michigan retained possession. Morgan then missed inside, but Albrecht tipped the ball over a defender’s head, grabbed it as it headed out-of-bounds and flipped it Morgan for a layup.
“That was the biggest sequence of the game,” Pitino said. “It’s a two-point game, and we forced two missed shots, but they manage to get the ball back both times, and get a really tough bucket underneath. We never got back into the game after that.”
Stauskas followed with jumper to make it 58-52 with 2:58 left, and after another Minnesota miss, Albrecht made two free throws, and Minnesota’s Elliot Eliason was called for a foul. That gave Morgan two more free throws, and he hit one to make it 61-52.
Albrecht drained a 3-pointer on the next possession, giving the Wolverines a 10-point lead, and they were able to close out the game with ease, giving them a championship without Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Mitch McGary.
“I thought we did a great job fighting back every time they made a run, but you have to give them credit,” Pitino said. “There’s a reason that they just clinched a share of the title, and that a lot of those guys helped them go to the championship game last season.”
Burke and Hardaway left for the NBA after last year’s Final Four run, and Pitino joked that he hopes more Wolverines follow in their footsteps.
“During the handshake line, I told everyone of their players that they were a great team, and they should go to the NBA right now,” he said with a laugh. “Sadly, I think they are more likely to listen to Coach (John) Beilien than they are to listen to me.”
After the game, the 1989 champs joined their younger counterparts for Michigan’s famous fight song.
“It made this so much better to be able to celebrate with those guys,” said Morgan, the team’s only senior. “Those guys did something that no other team at Michigan has ever been able to do, so we obviously look up to them. It was special to be in the locker room, singing ‘The Victors’ after clinching this title, and having those guys in there singing along.”
The No. 16 Wolverines (21-7, 13-3) didn’t arrive at the Crisler Center expecting to have a chance to earn their third banner in three years, but Illinois changed that by upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing.
Michigan won a share of the Big Ten crown in 2012 and went to the national championship game last season. The last time the Wolverines hung banners in three straight seasons was 1964-66, when a group led by Cazzie Russell won three consecutive Big Ten titles and went to two Final Fours.
Beilein isn’t ready to celebrate — something he doesn’t do well at the best of times. Michigan can clinch its first outright conference title since 1986 with a win Tuesday at Illinois or next Saturday at home against Indiana.
“I love the way that we cherish regular-season titles at Michigan — I’ve never been anywhere else where it is so important,” he said. “But when it happens, I never really know how to react. Maybe I’ll be able to relax more if we get the outright title, because we want that.”