ATLANTA – Trey Burke has won nearly every player of the year award in existence, and he managed seven points. Tim Hardaway Jr. is the son of a former NBA star, a lethal shooter, and he missed 12 of 16 attempts from the floor. Nik Stauskas hits nearly 45 percent of his 3-pointers, and he clanked away all five of his shots.
Those portions of Michigan's resumé from Saturday night's national semifinal should have meant doom, particularly because Syracuse has burrowed its way into the heads of so many opponents over the past month with its unrelenting defense.
But what gave the Wolverines a 61-56 victory over the Orange – and put Michigan in Monday night's national championship game against Louisville at the Georgia Dome – was their uncanny versatility. Pick a character, and he provided something.
Mitch McGary, the freshman forward who started only his seventh game, scored 10 points and muscled his way to 12 rebounds – and that doesn't get to his deft passing in the middle of Syracuse's zone.
Glenn Robinson III, another son of a former NBA star, scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
And the Wolverines (31-7), a team that averages better than 77 points a game, somehow ground out a victory over the Orange (30-10), who got the pace they wanted, struggled much of the night on offense – yet pulled within one with 40 seconds left.
But when Brandon Triche, a four-year starting guard, drove the lane trailing by two, Michigan forward Jordan Morgan stepped in and took a charge, fouling out Triche in the process. But because Jon Horford only made 1 of 2 free throws, Syracuse had one more chance with 15 seconds left.
The drive by Trevor Cooney, Triche's replacement, slipped off the side of the rim, and when Morgan finished it at the other end with a thunderous dunk, Michigan had points from eight players and a date in the title game.
So what is left for Monday will be a floor full of talent, one of those finals that will pit plenty of future professional rivals and teammates against each other. Both Louisville and Michigan were ranked No. 1 at some point during the season. Now one will finish there.
The late matchup was so intriguing because the team's styles differed so greatly. The Orange arrived in Atlanta anchored by their unwavering defense, a zone that has been examined and dissected but not solved. It has, as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim reminded inquisitors at every turn, been reliable all year, but it had been otherworldly in the tournament. In the four-game run to the Georgia Dome, Syracuse allowed opponents to shoot only 28.9 percent from the floor, an incredible 15.4 percent from 3-point range. The zone amounted to a roundhouse right, stunning opponents, knocking it back.
Michigan, though, had the perfect counterpunch. In their four NCAA tournament games, the Wolverines had made nearly half of their field goal attempts (49.4 percent) and shot a deadly 40.2 percent on 3-pointers. Michigan scored at least 71 points in each of its tournament games. Syracuse hadn't allowed more than 60. The trends were well-established. What, if anything, would give?
One thing the Wolverines had going for them: coach John Beilein, whose familiarity with Boeheim's zone defense goes back to his days at LeMoyne College, a Division II school in Syracuse, N.Y.. Boeheim famously used to come watch Beilein's practices, and when Beilein was up for jobs thereafter – whether they be at Canisius, at Richmond or West Virginia – Boeheim always was ready with a recommendation.
The familiarity, though, hadn't brought success. In nine previous matchups with Boeheim, Beilein never had won. Still, he is an excellent strategist, and with six days to prepare, he had the Wolverines ready to attack the zone from a variety of angles. Midway through the first half, Michigan went on a 15-3 run in which five players scored. They beat the Orange down the floor, not allowing the zone to get set. They passed confidently and crisply around it, using rugged and rapidly developing 6-foot-10 McGary, then finding open jumpers.
And when Burke finally scored his first points – a 3-pointer with just less than a minute remaining – the Wolverines had a 36-25 halftime lead. In the tournament, no team had hit more than four 3s in a game against the Orange. Burke's basket gave Michigan six in the first half alone.
Burke's foil in this game was to be Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who jettisoned Indiana in the East Region semifinals by scoring 24 points, then played a brilliant floor game in the regional final against Marquette. But Carter-Williams couldn't find a flow offensively, missing five of his six shots, and with senior wing James Southerland basically a no-show, the Orange had trouble countering Michigan's attack.
So Syracuse turned to lanky junior C.J. Fair, a capable scorer and prototypical Orange forward. With just less than eight minutes remaining, Fair found a way to get off a jumper along the baseline, and when it settled through, Michigan's lead was down to 48-45. The Wolverines called timeout, and the Orange section of fans that filled one corner of the dome rose.
But that was the extent of what the Orange could manage. On their next three possessions, Southerland – who finished his career with a forgettable 1-for-8 night – missed a three-pointer, then Fair missed a jumper and a three of his own. McGary's foul line jumper with just less than four minutes remaining built the advantage back up to eight, and forced an increasingly disconsolate Boeheim to call time.
And when Carter-Williams fouled out on a charge call with 1:14 remaining, Hardaway jumped up and pumped his fist, lifting his jersey to the Michigan faithful. It didn't matter who did what for Michigan on Saturday night, just that the Wolverines got it done.