March 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Michigan's Jordan Morgan shows champion's resolve on rewarding night

Ann Arbor After the final horn, Jordan Morgan grabbed the basketball. Moments later, with the confetti still falling, his coach handed him the microphone. And once Morgan had led the Crisler Center crowd in "The Victors" one final time, John Beilein handed him the hardware: the Big Ten championship trophy.

It belongs to Michigan and Michigan alone this season, just as Saturday night belonged to Morgan.

Maybe even resembled Morgan or his career, at least -- as the Wolverines rallied from an early deficit and then persevered late to beat Indiana, 84-80, and send their stoic captain out on a high note.

"His willpower over his five years, it came to fruition today," Belein said after his 12th-ranked Wolverines capped a 15-3 regular season in the Big Ten. "And our team was sort of like that the whole game. Not many things went well for us. But we just stuck in there, just like Jordan over his five years."

He stuck in there, and stuck around long enough to earn his just reward, honored in a pregame ceremony Saturday night as the only senior on a roster that did something no Michigan team had done in more than a quarter century.

This was Michigan's first outright Big Ten title in 1986, and for Morgan, who has been at the center of this program's transformation with 114 wins as a player, he's third on the school's all-time list it was hard to put into words what this all meant.

Harder still to hold back the tears, which he admittedly did not.

"I mean, you're talking about five years of emotions wrapped up in one day," he explained. "So much work and sweat and adversity that went into this. Just years and years of battling, constant battling. This is the culmination of all that."

Morgan's transformation

So as Morgan made the walk to center court flanked by his parents before the game, the fifth-year senior kept dabbing his eyes, as did his mother.

"Trust me, it was worse before that," he said later.

It was, in so many ways. Morgan, a graduate student who already has his engineering degree, can remember the days as an out-of-shape freshman when he wondered if he'd ever play.

"I'll tell you, he could not make a 30-second sprint when he first got here," Beilein noted this week.

The student section at Crisler wasn't exactly racing to fill the seats back then, either. But Saturday night, it was packed, as it always is now, and this time the Maize Rage stood waving signs of gratitude and chanting "J-Mo! J-Mo!"

His coach was calling the 6-foot-8 center's name early, too, and not by accident. Indiana went with a smaller lineup to start the game, so the Wolverines went to Morgan, who scored his team's first three buckets en route to a season-best 15-point night. The crowd, who has come to adore Morgan for his hustle and toughness, loved every bit of it.

"It was just kind of the way it went," said Morgan, who also grabbed 10 rebounds five on the offensive glass for his first double-double of the season. "But it was fun to start the game like that."

Saturday was about finishing things the right way, though. And Michigan managed to do that as well, despite the fact the Hoosiers raced out to an early 10-point lead and shot nearly 60 percent from the field for the game.

Michigan's offense kept pace, and with fewer turnovers, taking the lead for good just before the first TV timeout of the second half. A late 13-2 run by Tom Crean's team tied it at 75 with 1:25 to play. But Glenn Robinson III's three-pointer from in front of the Michigan bench and some clutch free-throw shooting sealed the win for the Wolverines, allowing them to celebrate without any hesitation.

Roles reversed

This was a far different feeling for Morgan and his teammates than a year ago, when they watched their shot at a share of the Big Ten title come up empty in the final seconds against this same Indiana team.

Morgan's tip-in attempt off a Trey Burke miss rolled agonizingly around the rim before falling off in the regular-season finale last March, allowing the Hoosiers to escape with a win and adding to his own personal frustrations.

Morgan, who struggled with his conditioning early in his career, was mostly a bystander for last spring's magical NCAA Tournament run, thanks to a severe ankle injury he suffered in January and the emergence of then-freshman Mitch McGary in March.

This year, those roles have been reversed, with McGary assuming the cheerleader's role from the bench while Morgan one of the Big Ten's best defenders plays an integral in this team's continued success.

The win over Indiana on Saturday meant they'd beaten every team in the league for the first time since 1992, the Fab Five's freshman season. And it was that same basket where his tip-in rolled out last March that Morgan on Saturday night took a pair of scissors to snip the first souvenir, while his teammates hooted and hollered

"I love playing with these guys, they're some of the best teammates," Morgan said, after the celebration on the court had finally subsided. "It's been an amazing year."

He paused, before adding his own qualifier.

"So far," he finished. "So far."

And after everything he has been through, Jordan Morgan's in no hurry to see it all end.

Jordan Morgan holds up his piece of the net following Michigan's victory over Indiana Saturday night at the Crisler Center. / Duane Burleson / Getty Images
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