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Niyo: No work of art, but UM’s bound for Brooklyn

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Dayton, Ohio — One team didn’t belong.

The other?

Well, Michigan gets to keep playing in this NCAA Tournament, bound for New York City — “No sleep ‘till Brooklyn!” center Ricky Doyle chirped in a happy locker room late Wednesday night — after a basketball game that left plenty to be desired.

The final score was 67-62 in favor of the Wolverines, and while the peach baskets were undeniably bruised by the end of it — Michigan and Tulsa combined to miss 31 of their 40 3-point attempts in this fitful First Four finale at University of Dayton Arena — there were no apologies.

Only smiles.

“I wouldn’t call it a pretty win,” said Duncan Robinson, who first-possession 3-pointer — nothing but net — was not quite the harbinger anyone hoped it might be Wednesday. “But I’d call it a gritty win.”

And they’ll take it, regardless, through gritted teeth and with one gutsy shot by Zak Irvin, whose 3-pointer with 53 seconds left — his previous attempt had come up embarrassingly short — proved to be the dagger.

“He’s not gonna stop shooting,” fellow junior Derrick Walton Jr. joked. “Eventually he’s going to make one.”

Soon enough, they’ll face a team against whom one — or two or three — won’t be enough. Maybe Friday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where a well-rested Notre Dame team — with one of the nation’s most efficient offenses — awaits.

But for now, this one will do, and the look on John Beilein’s face as Irvin launched that late 3-pointer — a lot of Michigan fans probably were grimacing along with him — was long gone by the time he met with the media after the game.

That play, with Moritz Wagner setting a solid screen and Irvin getting an open look as the Tulsa defender slid under it, was a version of the same play Michigan used to beat Northwestern last week in the Big Ten tournament

“It got him open where I want to get him open,” Beilein said. “I trust him at that time.”

Belief system

And don’t look now, but the Wolverines are starting to trust themselves at crunch time, too, with late-game heroics in three big wins in the last week as Michigan salvages something from this season.

“I just think we’re believing in each other,” said Wagner, the 18-year-old freshman from Germany who probably wouldn’t have believed a month ago he’d be playing this kind of role in these kind of games.

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Wagner, after a solid cameo appearance in Indianapolis last week, did more than provide a spark off the bench Wednesday. He gave his team a huge lift, with eight rebounds, four blocks and steal — along with a crucial putback dunk with 1:53 left — in a season-high 22 minutes.

Not bad for a guy who’d virtually disappeared in January and February, only to be rediscovered by Beilein and his staff after a late-season stint on the scout team.

“But he really has some confidence right now,” Beilein said. “And you can see what we saw in him these last couple of games.”

That said, everyone could see this was a de facto play-in game Wednesday, as two of the final three at-large teams to make the field of 68 combined for 37 missed shots in the first half, each with their own eye-gouging 6-minute scoring drought.

“We couldn’t make a shot,” Beilein said, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as the Wolverines jacked up 18 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.

Still, Michigan closed with a 19-4 run for an eight-point lead at the break — the 20-point first half was a season low for Tulsa — and seemed to have the upper hand.

Generation gap

Only they didn’t. This Michigan team — as inconsistent as it is inexperienced — rarely has all season.

And as they struggled with foul trouble, and some mismatched lineups to go with all the missed shots, Tulsa found a way to stick around. Which was probably fitting, I suppose.

Tulsa was the last team in the field of 68, according to selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione. And a choice that was universally panned when the brackets were unveiled Sunday.

“There’s going to be a team every year that everybody says, ‘They shouldn’t have gotten in,’ ” Tulsa coach Frank Haith said. “And we’re that team this year.”

But Haith, who hasn’t won a tournament game since 2008 — two schools and two NCAA investigations ago — also boasted the most experienced roster in the country, with four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup and seven seniors in the regular rotation.

Beilein, meanwhile, was reminded what he has when he met with his team Tuesday morning to prep for Tulsa, going over all the logistics — press conferences, open practices, and so on. Only two players in the room — Walton and Irvin — had ever been part of the NCAA Tournament before. His two seniors — Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht — are relegated to cheerleader roles, for the most part, and that partly explains the Wolverines’ struggles down the stretch.

“Well, experience definitely helps,” Walton said Tuesday. “But we’re here now, and excuses kind of go out the window.”

In the end, none were needed. A win is a win at Tournament time, and the season goes on, no matter how it looked Wednesday.

No sleep till Brooklyn?

Nah. Beilein wasn’t hearing any of that, not with a 1 a.m. departure scheduled for the bright lights and the big city, where the real tournament begins.

“This is probably the first time I’ll ever say to the guys, ‘Sleep ‘till noon,’ ” the coach said, smiling. “And we’ll worry about Notre Dame after that.”