ATLANTA -- In order for the Michigan men’s basketball team to ensure itself of one more game, it came down to maintaining patience, poise and perseverance.
Despite a last-minute stretch in which they made only four of eight free throws, the Wolverines took advantage of a late charging call against the Orange and made key defensive stops to wrap up a 61-56 win over Syracuse and earn a berth in the national championship game.
But even with the uncharacteristic play of point guard Trey Burke, who finished with seven points and went 1 for 8 from the floor, the Wolverines (31-7) ushered the Orange out of the Big East Conference and will face Louisville, another departing Big East team, at 9:23 p.m. Monday at the Georgia Dome for the national championship.
Michigan makes its first appearance in the national title game in 20 years, and plays for its first national championship since 1989.
“You know, it feels great to just be playing on Monday night,” Burke said. “A lot of teams aren't playing Monday night. Just to be able to have the opportunity to play here in Atlanta for a national championship, it's a dream come true.
“Growing up as a kid, watching March Madness, you always wanted to see yourself playing in the Final Four, playing in the national championship. Now that we're here, we're one step away from accomplishing a goal that we've set at the beginning of the year.”
MICHIGAN NOTEBOOK: Defense emphasized for Wolverines
Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, Michigan took advantage of a sluggish start in the early moments of the game by the Orange - unusual of a team that came into Atlanta with a certain amount swagger - and raced out to a five-point lead less than four minutes into the game.
Tim Hardaway, Jr., led Michigan with 13 points while C.J. Fair led Syracuse with 22 and helped the Orange (30-10) slice Michigan’s lead to two in the final minute.
“ I thought we got off to a really bad start defensively in the first half,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We just didn't have the movement that we've had and Michigan took advantage of it. Our offense was not good in the first half or the second half. The second half, we got our defense going a lot better and got back in the game in spite of our offense.
“But when it was 8 [points], I thought we just did an unbelievable job of getting back in it and giving ourselves a chance.”
After the slow early start, the Orange came back to tie the game at 14-14, taking advantage of the fact that the Wolverines struggled to sink 3-point shots. Of the Wolverines’ three 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes, two came off the bench from Caris LeVert as Michigan went 3 for 12 in that stretch.
The Wolverines finished 6 for 17 from behind the 3-point line in the first half. Still, Michigan was able to produce against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, which has otherwise become the program’s trademark this season.
And the Wolverines broke a 14-14 tie by going on a 10-3 run - and they got their clutch 3-pointer.
Spike Albrecht’s shot from the corner, on a pass from McGary, widened Michigan’s lead to 24-17 and forced the Orange to call its first timeout with 6:25 left in the half.
Less than two minutes later, Albrecht hit his second 3-pointer of the game to open up Michigan’s lead to 28-21 and the Wolverines completed a stretch in which Burke scored his first points of the game - a 3-pointer with exactly one minute left in the first half - to take a 36-25 lead at halftime.
“We have guys that can come off the bench and give us sparks any given night,” Burke said. “We don't necessarily know who it's going to be. Sometimes it may be Spike, sometimes it may be Caris on the defensive end. They both played their tails off tonight. They both knocked down shots that were there, that were given to them. They played defense. It kind of allowed the veterans to play with more confidence.”
Fair had nine points in the first half and nine more before the halfway point of the second half, helping Syracuse cut Michigan’s lead to 45-41 and then to 48-45 three minutes later, with 7:41 left.
Then, in the final minute, the Orange again put the Wolverines on their heels. With exactly a minute left, Brandon Triche and James Southerland scored nine seconds apart to cut Michigan’s lead to 57-56 - sandwiching a pair of missed free throws by McGary - but free throws by Burke and Jon Horford, and a final, thundering dunk by Jordan Morgan sealed the win.
“We just continued to try to find ways to get the ball into our best foul shooter's hands,” Burke said. “At the end of the day it came down to defense. We got a lot of stops on the defensive end and it allowed us to get out in transition where we're best at.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.