'Nobody believed in us': Michigan marches into Sweet 16 with upset victory
Indianapolis — As time was running down in Saturday’s second-round NCAA Tournament matchup and Michigan was trailing by six late against Tennessee, a thought crept into the back of fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks’ mind.
He wanted one more shot, one more opportunity to wear his Wolverines uniform one last time.
Brooks made sure it happened. He spearheaded a strong finish over the final eight minutes that propelled No. 11 seed Michigan past No. 3 Tennessee, 76-68, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse and into the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive season.
“Making it to the Sweet 16 is, as literal as it is, sweet because nobody believed in us,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said. “Everybody thought we shouldn't be in the tournament. And now people that were hating on us are going home and about to watch us next week.”
Michigan (19-14) will face either second-seeded Villanova or rival Ohio State, a No. 7 seed, in Thursday’s South Region semifinal in San Antonio. Game time is to be determined.
Dickinson carried Michigan much of the way and finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds. But it was Brooks who helped carry the Wolverines home, scoring 18 of his 23 points in the second half and 11 of those coming during the decisive 22-8 run over the final 7:21.
After Tennessee (27-8) rattled off seven unanswered points with a string of dribble drives and layups — two coming from Kennedy Chandler — to grab a 60-54 lead with 8:27 remaining, Michigan responded behind Brooks.
Brooks knocked down a jumper and scored on a driving layup to cut the deficit to two. The Wolverines mixed in a zone to keep Tennessee’s guards out of the paint, a move that paid off as the Volunteers went scoreless for four minutes and the momentum started shifting.
Sophomore forward Terrance Williams II kept the ball rolling with a pair of critical baskets, soaring in for two offensive tip-ins a minute apart to tie it at 62 with 4:01 remaining.
“In the huddle we talk about him being a dog, being the toughest, nastiest out there,” Brooks said of Williams, who scored six of his nine points in the final 5:03. “And those two rebounds and putbacks were big to keep the momentum going.”
Added Dickinson: “I don't care how much minutes (Williams) plays, or what, my man is going to make winning plays when he's out there, and he did that today. We don't win without Terrance Williams II today.”
From there, Brooks swung the game in Michigan’s favor. He finished a layup through contact and converted a three-point play to put the Wolverines ahead for good, 65-62, with 3:21 to play.
Brooks’ biggest basket came in the final minute and essentially put the nail in Tennessee’s season. After he committed a turnover that led to a layup and trimmed Michigan’s lead to 68-66, he made up for it by flipping up a looping hook shot late in the shot clock that drew nothing but net with 53 seconds left.
“I got a little deeper than I wanted to, so I didn't have that great of an angle for the backboard,” Brooks said. “The best option was going straight at the basket.”
Michigan salted the game away at the line, with Brooks, Dickinson and freshman forward Moussa Diabate (13 points) combining for six free throws in the final 36 seconds, to keep marching on.
Chandler finished with 19 points and Josiah-Jordan James added 13 for Tennessee. The Volunteers scored 20 points off 15 Michigan turnovers, but they shot 41.8% from the field (28-for-67), missed 16 of their 18 3-point attempts and made only four baskets over the final nine minutes.
“It was a hard-fought game. They made plays that put them in the position to win the game,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “The difference in the game was the second-chance points. Those two offensive rebounds we gave up were huge at the time. And during that stretch — everybody we played all year has been concerned about the 3-point line. We missed three, four looks that we would like — I don't think we could have got it better, but some days it goes, some days they don't.
“We needed to have more inside today. I would have liked to see us do a little bit more inside and put more pressure on Hunter Dickinson. … But give them credit. They made the plays there at the end, and those two offensive rebounds were huge plays in the game.”
Grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones returned to the starting lineup after missing the first-round game while in concussion protocol. He finished with two points, three assists and three rebounds in his first NCAA Tournament action, but he didn’t play in the second half.
Michigan got off to a quick start behind Dickinson and controlled most of the first half until it stumbled down the stretch. Over the final 4:50, the Wolverines turned it over five times and failed to attempt a single shot over the final 2:29. During one sequence, Michigan overthrew an inbounds pass, gave up a second-chance 3-pointer and missed an uncontested putback. The Volunteers rattled off a 13-2 run as Michigan’s empty possessions led to easy baskets and a 37-32 halftime deficit.
The Wolverines shook that off by feeding Dickinson in the post after the break. He responded by scoring nine quick points with a flurry of hook shots and free throws as Michigan pulled even at 45 with 15:03 remaining.
That triggered a frantic back-and-forth stretch when the teams traded blows and Michigan took the lead three times, the last on a layup by Brooks to go up, 54-53, at the 11:29 mark. From there, Tennessee pulled ahead by six before Brooks kept the Wolverines in the hunt for a national title.
“I'm just trying to live in the moment right now and cherish the time that we have with the people that are in my life right now at Michigan,” Brooks said. “I’m just enjoying the process of going through this tournament again and having that chance of getting our last goal.”