ATLANTA — Moments after sinking a key jump shot from the elbow late in the second half Saturday night, Mitch McGary approached Michigan's section of the crowd, popped his jersey and signaled for the fans to get louder.
As if Wolverines fans needed any further encouragement.
They stood and roared after every Michigan basket. They flung their Final Four seat cushions in the air like caps on graduation day as the buzzer sounded. And they chanted "beat the Cardinals" as their team celebrated at mid-court.
On a night when Trey Burke missed seven of his eight shots, Nik Stauskas failed to score and Tim Hardaway Jr. needed 16 shots to score 13 points, Michigan still found a way to thwart a late Syracuse rally and escape with a 61-56 victory. McGary produced a near triple-double, Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht each hit a pair of threes off the bench and the Wolverines continued their recent trend of playing surprisingly stingy half-court defense.
The biggest play of the game came when Syracuse guard Brandon Triche drove to the rim with 17 seconds left and his team having cut an 11-point halftime deficit to two. Michigan big man Jordan Morgan stepped in front of Triche and drew a charge, helping the Wolverines survive a hail of missed free throws in the final two minutes and advance to face Louisville in Monday night's national title game.
"I was kind of in the lane watching the action," Morgan said. "That's something we preach all year on defense is taking charges. It's a big play in a basketball game, so I am just glad I was able to get there."
Michigan's victory is the latest step in the remarkable turnaround coach John Beilein has orchestrated in Ann Arbor. Hired in 2007 to revive a once-proud program that had missed March Madness nine consecutive times, Beilein quickly instilled discipline and increased the talent level, taking the Wolverines to four NCAA bids in the past five seasons.
That this year's Michigan team is now one win away from its first national title since 1989 is a surprise considering the way the Wolverines faded down the stretch in the regular season. They lost six of their final 12 games prior to the NCAA tournament, a stretch that included a Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Wisconsin and a humbling upset at the hands of a Penn State team previously winless in league play.
Improved defense has played a role in Michigan's turnaround, but it's McGary's tour de force in the NCAA tournament that has transformed the Wolverines from a good team to a title contender. Since replacing Morgan in Michigan's starting lineup in the team's NCAA tournament opener, McGary has emerged as the interior scorer and rebounder the Wolverines have lacked all season, averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in Michigan's first four NCAA tournament games.
McGary again was critical for Michigan on Saturday, flashing to the high post and effectively distributing the basketball to help Michigan counter Syracuse's vaunted two-three zone. He finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, a pretty amazing line for a guy who had only 18 assists all season entering play Saturday.
"I consider myself a good passer," McGary said. "Sometimes too crazy for Coach Beilein. Sometimes I turn the ball over. Open gym and stuff during the sumer, I was doing no-look passes, but [tonight] I was just trying to make the right play."
If Michigan appeared to have a white-knuckle grip on a berth in the title game with an 11-point halftime lead, Syracuse gradually loosened the Wolverines' hold in the second half. Michigan went cold from the perimeter and C.J. Fair caught fire for the Orange, sinking a baseline jump shot to cap a 10-3 run that cut the Wolverines' lead to 48-45 with less than eight minutes to play.
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Syracuse had a golden opportunity to tie the game on its next possession when Fair found a wide-open James Southerland spotted up in the corner behind the arc. Alas, Southerland's shot rimmed out and Michigan gradually widened the gap again, Trey Burke sinking one of two foul shots, Glenn Robinson III converting a tip-in and McGary knocking down his jump shot from the elbow to put the Wolverines ahead 53-45.
Syracuse's loss keeps Jim Boeheim stuck on one national championship, but the Orange deserve credit for getting closer than anyone would have guessed given the turbulent finish to the regular season they endured. They lost seven of their final 12 games prior to the Big East tournament, a poor stretch culminating in a 78-61 thrashing at the hands of rival Georgetown that appeared to confirm this Syracuse team wasn't the same caliber as some of the powerful yet snake-bitten Orange teams of recent years.
In 2010, Syracuse won the Big East title and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament only to fall in the Sweet 16 after losing starting center Arinze Onuaku to a season-ending knee injury days before Selection Sunday. The Orange were again a No. 1 seed after taking a 31-1 record into the Big East tournament, but they lost starting center Fab Melo as a result of academic issues on the eve of the NCAA tournament and fell in the Elite Eight.
This year's team peaked at the right time, but it fell two wins short of a championship.
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