Indianapolis — The thought didn’t even cross senior forward Zak Irvin’s mind.
The last time Michigan played in Indianapolis in the NCAA Tournament, it was a heart-breaking ending. Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison hit a 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left to upset Michigan and end Irvin’s freshman season in the 2014 Elite Eight.
Three years later, everything came full circle. But this time, Irvin, the Indiana native, helped rewrite the ending in his final homecoming, finishing with 11 points on 5-for-9 shooting, four rebounds and two assists as No. 7 seed Michigan edged No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69, in Sunday’s second-round game.
“I had a dream about it last night. I think everybody was dreaming about it, going to the Sweet 16,” Irvin said. “Especially us Indiana guys, playing in Bankers Life, winning in front of our family and friends is definitely a memory we’ll always remember.”
As the regular season was winding down, senior forward Sean Lonergan and Irvin, both from Fishers, Ind., and senior guard Andrew Dakich, from Zionsville, Ind., talked about the possibility of getting one last chance to cap their Michigan careers and play close to home.
“Me, Dak and Zak had a conversation before the (Big Ten) tournament about what if we wind up Indy?” Lonergan said. “We sit down and all of a sudden, boom there we are going back home. Of course the three of us won’t shut up about it.
“Everybody is asking for tickets and you know you’re going to get to see all your friends and family so it was really cool, especially because we got to do our Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games here our freshman year. To come back and play in the tournament was pretty special.”
While Lonergan and Dakich didn’t play, they watched Irvin score six straight for Michigan on a layup and two mid-range jumpers during its pivotal 15-4 second-half run and assist on Moritz Wagner’s 3-pointer with 6:41 left to put the Wolverines ahead for good.
“I just kept telling him, ‘Play your game. I’ve watched you since seventh grade make big shot after big shot. Stay confident in yourself,’” Lonergan said. “I just try to always be in his ear and encourage him and today I just told to hit singles. You don’t have to be the hero today, just hit singles, just make the right play.
“Today it was him making shots and getting others involved and he played unreal.”
After the buzzer sounded and celebration started, Lonergan, Dakich and Irvin ran over toward their family and friends in the Michigan cheering section to relish their final trip home.
“To share that moment with them in your senior year,” said Lonergan, “that’s awesome.”
One for Beilein
Entering Sunday’s game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino had gotten the best of Michigan coach John Beilein, beating arguably his best two teams when the Cardinals edged West Virginia in overtime in the 2005 Elite Eight and bested Michigan in the 2013 national-title game.
Forward Duncan Robinson, Lonergan and Irvin said while there was no talk amongst the players, everyone knew how much a win would mean for Beilein.
“We’re thrilled. I know he wanted this one really, really badly,” Robinson said. “For us to win it for him, us, this program, the university and all the Michigan fans out there is incredible.”
Beilein brushed aside the coaching rivalry and said the game was bigger than the two of them.
“(Pitino) is a tremendous basketball coach, but this is about the University of Michigan,” said Beilein, who improved to 2-4 against Pitino. “This isn’t about beating Rick Pitino, who is a tremendous coach. It’s about the University of Michigan trying to do everything the right way.”
With the win, Michigan became the third Big Ten team to reach the Sweet 16, joining Wisconsin and Purdue. The Badgers upset the reigning national champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova, and the Boilermakers outlasted No. 5 seed Iowa State.
“Wisconsin winning yesterday, I think that was a great thing for us,” Beilein said. “The Big Ten had a young league, it was developing. D.J. Wilson, Moritz Wagner nobody heard of. Teams get better and they develop and that’s what the Big Ten does so well and now we got three of them in.”
Irvin said despite the Big Ten’s parity during the season, it’s making a statement for all those who doubted the conference’s strength.
“All these Big Ten teams, we played against each other all the Big Ten season. We knew what we were capable of,” Irvin said. “A lot of people said it was down this year, but the three of us are definitely proving people wrong.”
With No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 10 seed Wichita State playing immediately after Michigan, the Wolverines had a few extra fans cheering it on.
“I think the Kentucky fans were rooting against Louisville and our fans always travel well and had a great family section,” senior forward Mark Donnal said. “Our families really travel well and we got a lot of Indiana guys so they were loud for us in key moments and really gave us an advantage.”
Kentucky held off Wichita State, 65-62.
… Heading into Sunday’s matchup, Louisville’s defense forced an average of 13.8 turnovers. Michigan, one of the top teams in the nation in taking care of the ball, finished with six turnovers.
“I think people know we take pride in not turning the ball over,” Irvin said. “We don’t like to commit turnovers and we like to value each possession. Louisville is a great team defensively but for us to be able to stay poised and get in a rhythm early was key for us.”
… With six 3-pointers, Michigan set a single-season program record with 350 made 3-pointers.
Michigan vs. Oregon
What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.
When: 7:09 p.m. Thursday
TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950
Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner.