INDIANAPOLIS — Somehow, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team survived.
It survived after Tennessee cut its lead to one point on Jordan McRae’s layup with 10.8 seconds left.
It survived after Caris LeVert slid out of bounds with 9.6 seconds left and put the ball back in Tennessee’s hands.
It survived after the teams combined for five timeouts in the final minute, and after an official’s review with 2.9 seconds left determined Michigan had possession of the ball after it went out of bounds.
In the end, McRae’s long-range desperation heave at the buzzer wasn’t enough to add to the highlight reels. His half-court miss sealed Michigan’s 73-71 win Friday over Tennessee in an NCAA Tournament Midwest regional Sweet Sixteen game.
“We’ve been in so many close games this year, it feels like every game’s a close game for us, especially now,” Michigan guard LeVert said. “We had to stay calm. Stay composed. Take care of the ball as much as we can, get as many stops as we can and, for the most part, keep them off the offensive backboards.”
No. 2 Michigan (28-8) will face No. 8 Kentucky at 5:05 p.m. Sunday for the right to go to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
The Volunteers (24-13) cut UM’s 15-point lead at the start of the second half to one with 10 seconds left, and placed the Wolverines in position for a return trip to Ann Arbor.
“Yeah, it would not have been good,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “ It would have been a tough bus ride. We've had several games where the ball bounced one way or another at the end of the game. But they created some great breaks for themselves. Their run down the stretch right there, a couple of turnovers, and then just inbounding the ball like that is difficult to do.
“It was just enough to win. But it didn't happen, so I'm not going to worry about it one minute.”
Boosted by Zak Irvin’s six points in the first half, the Wolverines built an 11-point lead with 5:15 left in the half and appeared to handle Tennessee with ease.
“I think the first half we were kind of playing soft defense,” said Tennessee guard Josh Richardson, whose team trailed 45-34 at halftime. “ We let them get through and get to the rack whenever they wanted. And I mean, it was creating open looks from the [3-point line] because guys had to step down to help. But I think we did a better job settling down in the second half.”
The Volunteers cut Michigan’s lead to 60-51 on a putback by Armani Moore with 8:57 left in the second half, then cut the lead to seven with 6:09 left on Richardson’s layup, sandwiching a timeout called by Michigan.
Each time the Wolverines answered, until Tennessee cut their lead to three on Richardson’s 3-pointer with 24 seconds left, then to one on McRae’s layup off Jarnell Stokes’ steal.
Panic seemed to ensue when LeVert’s heel slipped out of bounds with 9.6 seconds left.
“I thought [the ref] called a foul first,” LeVert said. “I didn’t know I stepped out of bounds, then I looked at the screen.”
Officials called a charge against Stokes as Jordan Morgan attempted to defend, which gave possession back to UM and Nik Stauskas made the front end of a 1-and-1 to give the Wolverines a two-point lead with 2.1 seconds left.
“They set a screen for him to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him,” said Morgan, who led Michigan with 15 points. “And I just know he likes to play bully ball. He's in a stance, ready. I just was there. It's just something I do. I’ll take the charge.”
Stauskas’ second free-throw attempt spun off the rim, and Tennessee grabbed the rebound.
McRae stopped short of midcourt and launched a last-second, desperation 3-point attempt.
“It gave them no chance to set up,” Stauskas said of the second free throw attempt. “And they kind of had to go for a full-court shot in two seconds.”
The shot didn’t fall. Michigan collectively exhaled. And advanced.
“I don’t want to say it was a good thing,” Stauskas said of his missed free throw, “But I wasn’t too mad at the end of the day.”