ATLANTA -- The paths of Jim Boeheim and John Beilein are indelibly intertwined at Le Moyne College, a Division II school less than three miles from Syracuse's Carrier Dome.
While Boeheim racked up wins and built his Hall of Fame résumé, Beilein developed his own coaching style just down Erie Boulevard from 1983-92. The two never developed a close friendship but a deep mutual respect grew, with Boeheim showing up at the occasional Le Moyne game. Boeheim even helped Beilein launch his Division I career, recommending him for the job at Canisius.
Entering the national semifinal of the NCAA tournament on Saturday night, the long ties of Beilein and Boeheim were linked by one jarring statistic -- Beilein was 0-9 against Boeheim.
But on the biggest stage, and with the highest stakes, Beilein's long wait for his first win over his former crosstown neighbor couldn't have been more timely. Michigan advanced to the national title game with a 61-56 victory, surviving a torturous final minute and holding on despite going 4-for-10 from the free throw line in the final 1:09.
Tim Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 13 points, and his role as the Wolverines' leading scorer was fitting on a night of offensive ineptitude. He shot 4-for-16 from the field and Michigan finished 8-for 24 from three-point range.
Michigan's held the Syracuse star Michael Carter-Williams to just two points on 1-of-6 shooting and Syracuse senior James Southerland missed his first seven shots from the field.
But Syracuse had a chance to tie the game twice in the final 20 seconds thanks to Michigan's poor free throw shooting. With Carter-Williams fouled out, Triche drove to the basket with Syracuse down by two points and got whistled for an offensive foul. Michigan's Jordan Morgan slid over to take the charge, which will live as the defining moment from this choppy game. Still, Syracuse had one more chance after Jon Horford made only one of two free throws. But Syracuse's Trevor Cooney inexplicably drove the lane with nine seconds left and shot a two-point floater with Syracuse trailing by three points. That final moment of offensive impotency summed up a night of struggle for Syracuse, which shot 3-for-14 from three-point range.
Of those nine losses for Beilein heading into the game, only one came at Michigan. (Two were at Richmond and six at West Virginia.) But Beilein never had the talent like this Michigan team. The only drawback with Michigan's talent came from its youth, as they have one of the country's youngest teams with a rotation of six freshmen and one sophomore. Saturday in the Georgia Dome, the kids were more than alright, barely.
Michigan looked ready to implode in the final 70 seconds, as they missed 6-of-10 free throws. (Technically it was only five misses as Mitch McGary missed three consecutive with 48 seconds left when a lane violation on Syracuse's Baye Moussa Keita gave him an extra.)
The key to Michigan's victory came from Beilein's deft gameplan in unlocking Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense. The same defense that suffocated Indiana and handcuffed Marquette got poked and prodded by Michigan's judicious and deliberate offense.
No one dissected better it than Michigan's Mitch McGary, who flashed to the high post and made good decision after good decision. He finished the game with 10 points and 12 rebounds. McGary hustled back on defense to block shots, rebounded with an anger that would make Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall proud and was unquestionably the best player on the floor.
The Wolverines needed all that McGary offered, as their primary offensive weapons sputtered against Syracuse's zone. Trey Burke didn't score until he lobbed in a 30-foot three-pointer with one minute remaining in the first half. That was his only field goal of the night as he finished 1-for-8 with seven points.
Still, Michigan kept firing, as it shot 17 three-pointers in the first half, a huge portion of its 29 shots. Michigan finished the game 8-for-24 from three-point range, just enough against Syracuse's zone.
The Wolverines overcame poor nights by Burke (1-for-8), Hardaway Jr. (4-for-16) and Nik Stauskas (0-for-5).
Beilein's best strategic move of the night came by sitting Stauskas for a majority of the second half. He favored anonymous freshman guard Caris LeVert, a rotation player who has produced sporadically throughout the season.
Michigan also had to overcome a huge night for Syracuse forward C.J. Fair. On a roster with an embarrassment of talent, it's easy to forget about Fair. Michigan appeared to at times, as Fair shot 9-for-20 from the floor and led all scorers with 22 points.
There's a smoothness about Fair's game that makes allows him to blend in. He's not hyper athletic and shoots judiciously from three-point range. His mid-range game comes straight out of the 1970s NBA. He's so solid in a program where flair and athleticism are abundant, it's easy to forget that he's the leading scorer.
Heading into the game, Syracuse guard Brandon Triche publicly identified Fair as a difficult matchup for Michigan. The Wolverines bristled at the nation, but Triche wasn't kidding.
The problem for Syracuse was that Fair had no help. Carter-Williams bombed and Southerland didn't get a field goal until 38 minutes had passed in the game. (He did, however, tip a ball in the Michigan basket going for a defensive rebound, epitomizing his tough night.)
Still, Syracuse had a chance in the final second to tie the game. And the Orange, much as they struggled all night, simply couldn't make a play.
Beilein left the court victorious against Boeheim for the first time in his career. And on Monday, Beilein will coach in his first national title game.
Michigan's handling of Syracuse's zone showed what Boeheim knew all along -- that guy up Erie Boulevard at Le Moyne can coach a little bit.