Michigan picked a good time to finally win two straight games.
The Wolverines’ streak of inconsistency had gotten so dire that star big man Hunter Dickinson suggested to the team Friday morning that they scrimmage the team managers to get a loss out of the way before Michigan’s second-round matchup with Tennessee. It’s hard to know for sure whether that game actually happened (Dickinson joked that one manager “gave him buckets” this morning) but the team was certainly cognizant of its inability to win consecutive games.
“They put it up in our lockers before the Indiana game about the recent trend. We were well aware of it for a while now, and it's definitely been wearing on us,” Dickinson said. “There is no better time to break the streak than now, I guess.”
The team that spent the last month finding itself and then having to go back to the drawing board broke through Saturday, and did so against arguably the hottest team in men’s college basketball. The Wolverines beat a Tennessee team that hadn’t lost in a month and had dropped just one game since Feb. 1, and earned a spot in the Sweet 16 in the process. In fact, Tennessee hadn’t trailed at all in more than 115 game minutes before this game tipped off, dating back to a 4–2 early deficit to Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals. The Vols may have been a No. 3 seed, but there weren’t five teams in the nation coming into the day playing better than them.
And yet here Michigan is, surviving and advancing yet again, moving on in a tournament it nearly didn’t even get into after trailing by 15 in the opening half of its first game.
It started defensively, where Juwan Howard’s team did a tremendous job of running Volunteers shooters off the three-point line. A Tennessee team that had made 14 threes against Longwood and 12 against Texas A&M in the SEC championship game was limited to just 2 for 18 from deep, and marksman Santiago Vescovi was just 1 for 5 from distance.
“That was the main focus: Run them off the line and stay down on shot fakes, and we did that,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “That was the biggest key of winning the game.”
And on the other end, Michigan’s leaders carried the day. Dickinson and Brooks combined for 50 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists, and each played more than 37 minutes. Dickinson was a force on the block, but also knocked down three triples to stretch the Tennessee defense, while Brooks was highly efficient and made the biggest shot of the game, a running prayer of a hook shot that conjured images of former Wolverines point guard Zavier Simpson.
And down the stretch, the Wolverines made more clutch plays. Terrance Williams II came off the bench to score a pair of huge putback buckets in the game’s closing stages, exploding off the floor to snatch a rebound through the length of Tennessee’s frontcourt and score to help the Wolverines keep pace.
“He’s a prime-time player,” Dickinson said of Williams. “I don’t care how [many] minutes he plays or what, my man is going to make winning plays when he’s out there, and he did that today. We don’t win without Terrance Williams today.”
It’s a rather stunning end for a Tennessee team that looked the part of a real national championship contender for the better part of the last month. The Vols were getting elite point guard play from freshman Kennedy Chandler (19 points, nine assists Saturday), had tremendous cohesion and were playing their best basketball at the right time. Tennessee had already beaten Arizona, the No. 1 seed in its region, back in December. If there was a time for UT to break through and get to the program’s first Final Four, it was now. Instead, it’s another early NCAA tournament exit for Rick Barnes, who has now made just one Sweet 16 since 2008 despite 10 tourney appearances in that span between his time at Tennessee and Texas.
But the story today is Michigan, a team that has had many opportunities to fracture this season. From a COVID-19 pause to injuries to failing to live up to expectations to the postgame melee at Michigan that left head coach Juwan Howard sidelined for the final five games of the regular season, few if any teams in the sport endured more adversity than the Wolverines have this season. Yet somehow, Michigan stayed together through it all.
“There wasn’t really any doubt that this team is special,” Brooks said. “We have a good group of guys that have the same drive, the same passion … there wasn’t a second that anybody shied away.”
And they aren’t done yet.
“I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball, like to our potential. We still have a lot of mistakes that we have to clean up,” Brooks said. “That’s the scary thing with this team. If we keep on staying connected, good things are going to happen down the line.”
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