ARLINGTON, Texas — In the moments following its Elite Eight win, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team stood atop an elevated platform at center court of Cowboys Stadium.
Some of the Wolverines danced. Some cheered.
Some may have even shed a few tears following the Wolverines’ 79-59 win over Florida in the NCAA tournament’s South regional championship, which put Michigan in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years — even though Michigan’s 1993 Final Four appearance was later vacated as a result of egregious NCAA rules violations, and ensuing sanctions crippled the program for years afterward.
This time, Michigan’s place at the Final Four in Atlanta is legitimate. For some of the Wolverines, Sunday afternoon’s celebration atop the dais may have felt as high as the summit of Mt. Everest — about as high as anyone on Earth can reach.
And the Wolverines did it with a certain grudge in their game.
“This team has faced a lot of adversity,” said Michigan point guard Trey Burke, whose team will face Syracuse, the East regional champion, at 8:49 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome. “A lot of people doubted us to get to this point. A lot of people said we were too young, or we weren’t tough enough. But I definitely think that’s why we played with a chip on our shoulder over the last couple weeks. And it feels great to be going to Atlanta with a team like this.”
Two days after beating Kansas by the skin of its collective teeth in the Sweet Sixteen, fourth-seeded Michigan (30-7) wasted no time in putting to rest any doubt that it would carry the Big Ten Conference flag to the Final Four, in a game in which the Vegas odds and the pundits favored Florida.
Instead, the third-seeded Gators (29-8) crumbled, allowing the Wolverines to take an 18-4 lead before the first media timeout.
“We were ready to go,” insisted Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin. “We didn’t plan on this. We didn’t think it was going to happen, but it just did.”
In addition to its early run, the Wolverines advanced on account of an early inside presence that kept Florida off-balance both offensively and defensively, as well as the torrid play of Nik Stauskas, who just couldn’t miss from long range against the Gators.
The freshman guard from suburban Toronto led the Wolverines with 22 points and went 6 for 6 on 3-pointers, including five in the first half.
“During warmups, I felt it right away,” said Stauskas, who averaged 9.9 points this season and whose previous season high of 22 came Dec. 1 in a 74-66 win at Bradley. “I felt like it was going to be one of those good days. I told Trey, ‘If I’m open in the corner, I’m going to knock it down.’ And he found me.”
While the Gators held Michigan forward Mitch McGary to 11 points, they couldn’t answer the play of Michigan’s guards, as Stauskas and Burke provided a 1-2 punch and combined for 37 points. Stauskas, Burke, and Tim Hardaway, Jr., (nine points) accounted for more than half of Michigan’s offense.
“The key was to come out and throw the first punch,” said Burke, who joined McGary and Stauskas on the South region’s All-Tournament team. “We noticed Nik was hot early in the first half. We tried to continue to find ways to find him when he was open.”
Florida, which lost in its third consecutive Elite Eight appearance, went 12 for 29 from the floor and got outrebounded 21-14 in the first half by the Wolverines, who took a 47-30 lead at the half.
“Michigan deserved this game,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team trailed by as many as 25 points in the second half. “They played better than us. They performed better. They did things that were necessary to beat us.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.