Atlanta — The Wolverines won this one, not Trey Burke.
One field goal. That's about all they got from college basketball's consensus national player of the year Saturday night, as Syracuse's smothering zone defense made a point of taking away Michigan's point guard in a national semifinal game.
And yet, in the end, all that did was drive home another point, because Michigan still advanced to Monday night's title game with a 61-56 win before a crowd of 75,350 at the Georgia Dome.
"I think it says we're a team — a true team" assistant coach LaVall Jordan said. "Everybody always says Trey Burke and the Wolverines. But we're a true team."
True to their word, they proved it again Saturday, as a couple freshman role players off the bench provided the early spark and a marginalized upperclassmen sealed the deal.
Burke and coach John Beilein's other two starting guards — Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas — were a combined 5-for-29 from the field. But in came the two overshadowed members of Michigan's freshman class — Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht — to help save the season, in many respects.
They each drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first half, converting four of their five attempts, as Michigan built a double-digit lead they'd need every bit of, as it turned out.
"Obviously, it was really important," Jordan said of Michigan's 21 bench points, including 16 in the first half. "We needed some guys to step in and step up. And they did that.
"You know, we get the luxury that you guys don't get: We see them every day in practice. So we know what they're capable of, we know how confident they are."
It takes a team
Honestly, though, everyone knew LeVert, who ended up playing 21 minutes, wasn't feeling all that confident in his shot. He hadn't scored a point in more a month, a span of eight games dating to the March 3 victory over Michigan State. ("I've really been in a slump," he said.) And when I asked him late Saturday night if he could remember the last time he'd made a 3-pointer in a game — it was Feb. 24 vs. Illinois — he paused for a moment before laughing and answering, "No, I honestly can't."
"But he shot it particularly well in warmups," assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. "And I was joking with him, I said, 'That's the Baby (Kevin) Durant I remember.'"
And oh, baby, when that first shot fell, "I knew he was good," Albrecht said, nodding across the room to LeVert, who was surrounded by TV cameras. "C-Love was going to work tonight."
Albrecht was, too, if only for a few minutes. The littlest Wolverine, who has become something of a cult hero in Ann Arbor the past few weeks, finally missed a free throw Saturday — he hadn't done that all season. But he simply can't miss from behind the arc, making both his 3-point attempts in the first half — that's 5-for-5 now in the NCAAs.
"They both knocked down shots that were there, that were given to them," said Burke, who struggled all night, finishing 1-for-8 from the field. "It kind of allowed the veterans to play with more confidence."
And it's that kind of confidence — when what looks like a liability becomes known for its reliability — that "allows teams to make a deep Tournament run," Alexander said.
Contributions from all corners
Obviously, it takes a player like Burke to carry the load most of the time. And it takes a breakout performance like what we're seeing from Mitch McGary, who spent almost the entire season coming off the bench himself but now is blossoming in a starter's role — arguably the biggest star of this NCAA Tournament.
Because of that, though, and because of an injury that derailed his season, and because of his struggles since returning, junior forward Jordan Morgan has seen his playing time dwindle. He played 34 minutes in the regular season finale against Indiana, when his missed putback at the buzzer sealed the Wolverines' fate. In the six postseason games since that crushing loss, he'd played a combined 30 minutes.
"It can be tough if you let it be," he admitted.
Still, he added, "It sounds kind of funny, but I think just imagining that moment when your team's gonna need you, and just knowing that you have to be ready when that time comes, it can keep you focused."
Funny thing is, he's right. And Saturday night, it was Morgan of all people, racing down court — albeit too slowly for some of his teammates' liking — for the final basket of the night. Moments earlier, he'd drawn the second of two big charging fouls, holding his ground as Brandon Triche drove to the hoop for a would-be tying layup with 19 seconds left.
Morgan only was on the court for 5 minutes Saturday night. But he certainly made a difference when he was out there.
"It's redemption for that young man," Alexander said.
And as the team celebrated in the locker room after it was over, it was Morgan who Beilein asked to lead the team in singing "The Victors." Fitting, really. Off the bench, and standing on a chair, in the middle of it all.