The Michigan Wolverines fended off a late challenge from the Tennessee Volunteers to earn a 73-71 victory Friday in the Sweet 16.
Despite a season-best performance from the Volunteers, John Beilein's team simply put on a shooting clinic. Outside of the final minute, the Wolverines have the look of the bracket's most dominant offense.
Four Wolverines starters scored in double digits, led by Jordan Morgan's 15 points. Nik Stauskas added 14 points and posted a 5-of-12 mark from the field. Michigan overall shot 55.1 percent from the field and an impressive 55 percent clip from long range as well (11-of-20).
Morgan in particular was adamant after the game that the victory was a statement win for his team, as captured by Michael Marot of the Associated Press, via ABC News:
"We heard all week about they had mismatches and how we couldn't guard them inside," Morgan said after letting out a scream at the end. "We're not really soft around here. That's not who we are."
Tennessee shot 52.6 percent from the field, tallied seven steals, blocked eight shots and won the battle on the glass 28-26, but the Vols still trailed by double digits for much of the game until the closing moments, where its stout zone defense finally made an impact.
Senior Jordan McRae topped all scorers with 24 points and led the late surge, but Tennessee's 3-of-11 mark from downtown and a miserable 8-of-14 tally from the charity stripe ultimately doomed the upset-minded Volunteers.
Both teams started red-hot from the field, but the writing was on the wall—Tennessee was going to need a gargantuan effort offensively to stand a chance.
Stauskas helped get Michigan out to an early lead, while sending a message to Tennessee via creative offense:
The Volunteers kept it close in the early going and were down just 23-21 after 10 minutes, but only because the team as a whole, led by Josh Richardson's seven points, shot a ridiculous 75 percent from the field.
The pace was simply not sustainable. As John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader illustrates, Michigan kept its sharpshooting pace while most other areas remained equal between the teams:
It got uglier—depending on one's perspective.
Tennessee shot a solid clip the rest of the half, as noted by its 50 percent tally from the field, but Michigan was simply too hot.
At the half up 45-34, the Wolverines shot a 16-of-26 mark from the field, hit on seven of nine from deep and connected on all six attempts from the line. Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal put it best:
Caris LeVert led the onslaught with 10 points at the half, but five other Wolverines had a minimum of six points. In reality, the performance defied all logic—encapsulated perfectly by The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre:
Both teams were shooting so efficiently for such a prolonged period that the game almost missed its under-four timeout, as captured by ESPN's Kevin Pelton:
Something had to give in the second half, and in the end it certainly wasn't Michigan's efficiency.
The Wolverines jumped out to a 60-49 advantage with just under 10 minutes to go in the contest, continuing to shoot much better than 50 percent overall.
It certainly was not the result of a lackadaisical effort from Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin's team switched its defensive approach in the second half, as noted by Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated:
Of course, Michigan reciprocated in kind with stellar defense thanks to the dominant presence of Morgan down low:
Then it finally happened. Tennessee broke through with an 8-0 run as the zone defense silenced Stauskas and Co. momentarily to make it 60-53. In a game of streaks, Tennessee kept the pace to make it an 11-2 run and close the gap further.
Stauskas then awoke from his second-half slumber to score a quick five points, yet McRae responded in kind with eight straight points of his own to make it 72-67.
Tennessee then played the foul game—and forced a costly Michigan turnover with 10.8 seconds left to bring the score to 72-71.
Self-destruct mode was fully engaged at this point for the Wolverines, as an inbounds pass to LeVert resulted in a turnover as his foot was out of bounds. Tennessee had a shot at the win with 9.6 seconds left, but referees called an offensive foul on Jarnell Stokes to give the ball right back to Michigan.
Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times was one of many who vehemently disagreed with the call:
Regardless, Michigan was able to kill the rest of the clock while knocking down free throws to put an end to the suddenly thrilling contest.
Michigan advances to the Elite Eight to take on the winner of No. 8 Kentucky and No. 4 Louisville with a full head of momentum. The showdown on Sunday, like Friday's last-second thriller, will surely be a matchup fans won't want to miss.
Tennessee's inspired postseason run comes to an end, but it's surely something Martin and Co. can build on moving forward as the upward trajectory of the program continues.
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