'It only gets more fun from here': Michigan outlasts relentless LSU, advances to Sweet 16
Indianapolis — One by one, all the top Big Ten teams were sent packing and handed an early exit in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 1 seed Illinois? Gone. No. 2 seeds Ohio State and Iowa? Both ousted. No. 4 Purdue? One-and-done.
Top-seeded Michigan? The Wolverines bucked the trend by overcoming a rocky start to both halves and a dynamic scoring duo to make the second weekend with a thrilling 86-78 victory over No. 8 LSU Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"The motto of today was, the words that were shared with the group: empty the tank, empty the tank," Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. "Our guys did that.
"We knew our job was going to be tough and our hands were going to be full. But our guys stepped up to the competition."
Michigan advances to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive tournament and will face No. 4 Florida State, a 71-53 winner over No. 5 Colorado, at 5 p.m. Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Senior guard Chaundee Brown and senior guard Eli Brooks each scored 21 and combined to make eight 3-pointers for Michigan (22-4), which trailed by as much as nine points in the first half. Sophomore wing Franz Wagner added 15 points — nine coming in the final 4:27 — and freshman center Hunter Dickinson added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
LSU had its own pair of high scorers in Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart, who combined for 57 points. The difference was Michigan's team effort and defense. The Tigers (19-10) attempted 17 more shots than the Wolverines, but finished the game shooting below 40% from the field and 30% from 3-point range.
After taking a one-point halftime lead, Michigan stumbled out of the break. Over the first four minutes, the Wolverines picked up five fouls — two apiece on Dickinson and Wagner — and made just one shot. LSU took advantage with an 8-0 spurt to pull ahead, 51-45, and set the stage for a half full of haymakers.
Michigan shook off the brutal start with a 10-0 burst to go back on top. Grad transfer guard Mike Smith and Brooks buried back-to-back 3s. Junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. made two free throws. Brown threw down a dunk to make it 55-51 at the 13:17 mark.
Within a blink, LSU swung back with a 12-3 flurry fueled by Smart and Thomas that gave the Tigers a 63-58 lead with 10:48 to go. The Wolverines took that punch, got back up and countered with a decisive 14-1 run to take the lead for good.
Brown provided the jolt and took over, scoring 12 points — six free throws and two 3-pointers — as Michigan regained a 72-64 advantage at the 5:57 mark. LSU missed seven straight shots at one point during the stretch.
"We couldn't string together enough stops," LSU coach Will Wade said. "We could just never string together enough stops to make a run and to expand our lead. We could never get the lead above 10 in the first half. Second half, after we got the six-point lead, we gave up a couple 3s, we missed a floater in the lane. We could never sustain what we were doing."
LSU pulled within six before Wagner came to life in crunch time. He scored on a running hook shot, drained a 3-pointer, threw down an uncontested dunk and converted a second-chance layup to push it to 84-74 with 2:07 remaining.
For good measure, Wagner came up with a key defensive stop in the final minute to preserve a six-point lead and stamp Michigan's ticket into the regional semifinals once again.
"It's crazy to think about. But that's where you want to be, that's where you dream of playing," Brooks said. "That's what we expect at Michigan. But you have to earn it. It only gets more fun from here."
LSU’s high-scoring offense was as good as advertised as Thomas displayed incredible shot-making and got off to a blistering start. Meanwhile, Michigan struggled to take advantage of its size with Dickinson being doubled in the post and had a tough time knocking down outside shots in the early stages.
That recipe led to an 15-7 deficit with 14:16 left in the first half. Thomas shot over Michigan’s guards in one-on-one situations and buried his first four attempts, including a contested step-back 3-pointer late in the shot clock.
"It was expected at times they're going to make some shots where it's going to be hand-ball contests and long 3s," Howard said. "But we got to make sure we don't put our heads down, fix it. That's the mentality it's been all season long."
As Thomas continued to pile up the points, the Wolverines didn’t wilt. Instead, they relied on the playmaking and scoring of Brooks to weather the frantic storm and keep the Tigers from running away. After LSU took a nine-point lead, Brooks found Brown for a 3-pointer and Dickinson for a three-point play on back-to-back possessions to cut it to 30-27 at the 6:43 mark.
Down the stretch, the Wolverines' length began to wear on the Tigers as their defense arrived and they began to assert themselves inside. Michigan closed the half on a 14-6 run and held LSU to one made field goal over the final four minutes to take a 43-42 edge into the break.
"Going into halftime, we talked about just staying the course, contesting every shot. The percentages are going to weigh out," Brooks said. "Just trying to stay the course, make sure that everybody knew that we were in this game, and this was our game to win."