ARLINGTON, Texas – Another fabulous group of young players has Michigan headed back to the Final Four.
Led by Big Ten player of the year Trey Burke and sharp-shooting guard Nik Stauskas, one of three freshman starters, the Wolverines dominated Florida right from tipoff, scoring the game’s first 13 points and routing the Gators, 79-59, in the South Regional final Sunday.
“A lot of guys said we were really young and that we couldn’t get here,” said Burke, a sophomore and the South Region’s most outstanding player. “We’re here now and we still have unfinished business.”
The last time Michigan made it this far was the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, what until now had been considered the program’s glory years.
Might be time to start rethinking that.
Once they got ahead Sunday, the Wolverines (30-7) maintained a double-digit lead against the SEC regular-season champion Gators (29-8), who lost in a regional final for the third straight year.
“We haven’t gotten off the greatest of starts of late. That was a terrific start,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Just hanging in there with our defense allowed us to keep that separation.”
Stauskas scored 22 points while making all six of his 3-pointers and Burke scored 15. Mitch McGary, a 6-foot-10 freshman, had 11 points and nine rebounds.
When the game ended, Burke was among several Michigan players who went to the opposite side of the court toward Michigan fans behind press row with fingers raised. Fans were chanting, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!”
And great to be young.
The Wolverines are headed to Atlanta to play Syracuse (30-9) in a national semifinal game Saturday.
Michigan hadn’t reached the Final Four since consecutive national championship game appearances in 1992 and 1993, the freshman and sophomore seasons of the Fab Five — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King.
Webber was gone before that team’s 1994 regional final loss to Arkansas played in the now-demolished Reunion Arena in Dallas, and Howard followed him to the NBA after that.
With four wins in this NCAA tourney, the Wolverines already have more tournament victories than their total from the end of the Fab Five era to this season. They had one win in 1998, and then didn’t even make the field again until 2009.
Despite being the only team to make regional finals each of the last three seasons, the Gators haven’t been to the Final Four since winning consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007.
Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy, the four-year seniors who came in not long after those titles, will leave without one of their own. They were part of the only Gators class to win consecutive outright SEC regular-season championships, but came up short in the biggest games.
Boynton and Will Yeguete had 13 points each for the Gators.
Florida is the first team to make it to three consecutive regional final games without winning at least one of them, according to STATS. Wyoming lost in the round of eight from 1947-49, but that stretch ended two years before the NCAA tournament expanded to more than eight teams.
The Gators were able to recover from an early deficit against Florida Gulf Coast for a 62-50 win Friday night on the raised stage at Cowboys Stadium.
It was another story facing Big Blue.
After McGary started the scoring with a layup, Stauskas made a behind-the-back pass to McGary for a slam before making his first 3-pointer less than a half-minute after that.
Burke passed to McGary for a layup before driving for one of his own. McGary’s jumper made it 13-0 only 3:05 into the game.
Stauskas, who was 2-of-12 from 3-point range the first three games of this NCAA tourney, couldn’t miss against the Gators.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Canada put the Wolverines up by 24 points with 4:08 left in the first half after two consecutive 3s from the left corner in a span of 27 seconds.
Like he did on all of his makes, Stauskas came back down the court with a smile on his face, sharing the moment with the Wolverines fans who made the trip to North Texas.
Florida missed its first seven shots before Will Yeguete made a layup more than 3 1/2 minutes into the game.
It was a rough finale for Murphy, who twice thought he had easy baskets in front of him only to have the shots blocked. Murphy had eight rebounds, but finished 0-of-11 shooting and was scoreless for the first time this season.
Murphy was obviously devastated, staring at the floor with slumped shoulder in the locker room after the game.
“Just missed shots,” Murphy said, barely loud enough to be heard, and answering in short spurts. “Our defense was bad.”
Even with an 11-2 run late in the first half punctuated by Boynton’s 3-pointer, the Gators were still down by 15 with a minute to go in the first half.
And the Wolverines were able to score even after it appeared that the half had ended; Burke was already started heading off the court pumping his right arm toward the Michigan fans.
Stauskas was fouled on a 3-point attempt with .4 seconds left and, after officials reviewed the play, hit two free throws to give the Wolverines a 47-30 lead.
It was that kind of day for Michigan, and for Florida.