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Over 90 hours this past weekend, the Big Ten watched as one of its most promising men's basketball seasons ever unraveled into March Madness embarrassment.
Michigan, at long last, stemmed the bleeding on Monday night. Barely.
The top-seeded Wolverines fended off LSU, 86-78, in large part thanks to the game of Chaundee Brown's life. The Wake Forest transfer came off the bench to score a season-high 21 points, and sparked a pivotal 9-0 second-half run that gave Michigan the lead for good.
Brown didn't score a single point in Michigan's first-round victory over Texas Southern. He hadn't scored more than 13 points in a month, and hadn't scored more than 15 since early-December.
But he rose to the occasion when the Wolverines needed him most. His primary impact, initially, was defense. Michigan couldn't stop LSU's talented guards. Brown came in to lock them up.
He then stayed in to give his team an unexpected offensive boost. He hit three of his six 3-point attempts, and all three of his 2s, and all six of his free throws.
When Brown was off the floor, LSU outscored Michigan by 11. When Brown was on it, the Wolverines were plus-19, and escaped with an impressive victory.
LSU's hot start
Nearly every advantage that LSU carried into the game rose to the surface early. Some pregame analysis had focused on the Tigers' size disadvantage down low. But their shortest starter is 6-foot-4. Guards Javonte Smart and Cam Thomas could shoot over their diminutive Michigan counterparts.
Thomas, a highly-touted freshman, was the best player on the floor. He scored 15 points in the first 12 minutes, and 19 in the first half, on mid-range jumpers, 3s, and tough shots at the rim.
LSU also forced a few turnovers and got out in transition. Darius Days' three-point play off an Aundre Hyatt steal gave the Tigers a nine-point lead, at 30-21, at the under-eight timeout.
But Michigan hardened on defense as the half wore on. Brown, at 6-foot-5, could affect shots and drives in a way that 5-foot-11 Mike Smith and 6-foot-1 Eli Brooks couldn't. Thomas, Smart and Trendon Watford cooled off.
LSU went four minutes scoreless, and saw its lead slip away. The Wolverines began to get to the rim, often via the post, and took their first lead since the opening possession in the final minute of the half.
Michigan pulls away late
LSU re-found its offensive groove after halftime – largely thanks to Smart and Thomas again. They had 19 of LSU's first 21 points. Thomas hit a top-of-the-key 3 to give the Tigers a five-point lead.
Brooks, meanwhile, kept the Wolverines in the game. He hit five 3s, and already had a career-high 19 points with more than 10 minutes remaining. He finished with 21.
Brown then led the huge 9-0 run. Michigan retook the lead, 67-63, and never looked back.
Brown's corner 3 to cap the run came toward the end of a stretch in which he scored 12 of Michigan's 14 points. His energy flipped the game on its head.
"That smile goes a long way for the team," Brooks said postgame of Brown. "His energy, his presence, it helps the team. It brings the defense to a higher level."
Brown's impact, head coach Juwan Howard said, typically "does not show up in a box score." On Monday, it showed up everywhere.
The Wolverines started that crucial stretch down 63-58. They concluded it up 72-64. LSU never recovered.
Thomas and Smart finished with a combined 57 points for the Tigers. But the Wolverines, even without injured senior Isaiah Livers, had too much across the board. They'll advance to play fourth-seeded Florida State in the Sweet 16. And by the end of the night, they may well be the Big Ten's last hope.
The Big Ten's last hope
Michigan State was the first to fall in the First Four on Thursday night.
Iowa's loss to seventh-seeded Oregon on Monday afternoon left the Big Ten with only two of its nine teams remaining. By the end of the night, Maryland, had succumbed to Alabama, and whittled the field down to one. Michigan is the conference's last remaining Final Four contender.
And it looked ripe for an upset with Livers sidelined indefinitely. It looked to be sliding in the same direction as the rest of the Big Ten during the first half on Monday night.
But Brown and Brooks stepped up. And the Big Ten will live to see the tournament's second weekend.
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