Michigan's bench key to success
Jul 21, 2015 at 12:26 PM
Jordan Morgan hurt an ankle midway through the season, and he lost his starting job at the beginning of the NCAA tournament.
He was on the court at the end against Syracuse, though — and he made perhaps the biggest play of the game.
Morgan drew a charge on a driving Brandon Triche with the Wolverines clinging to a two-point lead, and Michigan went on to beat Syracuse 61-56 on Saturday night to advance to the national title game.
Player of the year Trey Burke scored only seven points, but the Wolverines were lifted by three key reserves. Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht made some early shots to loosen the Syracuse zone, and at the end it was Morgan who helped hold off the Orange.
"I always talk about the outliers that are out there — you just don't know who it's going to be," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Whether it's Jordan Morgan's charge, or Caris hitting those or Spike hitting. That's been the key to our season. So many times, somebody else stepped up."
Michigan will face Louisville in Monday night's title game.
LeVert and Albrecht — hardly the team's top options offensively — combined for four 3-pointers in the first half. Syracuse (30-10) rallied and trailed 58-56 when Triche drove to the basket. Morgan, who has ceded playing time to freshman Mitch McGary, was waiting to draw the offensive foul with 19.2 seconds left.
"He was going to be in there at the end when we needed stops," Beilein said. "Really happy for him."
Syracuse had another chance with Michigan up three, but the Wolverines (31-7) got a stop, and it was Morgan who capped the victory with a breakaway dunk.
Quite a moment for a guy who still hasn't played more than 6 minutes in any of the Wolverines' NCAA tournament games this year. Morgan played 5 on Saturday.
"You can get down if you want to, but I didn't let myself do that. My teammates too, they've really been encouraging me and just keeping faith and knowing that my team is going to need me at some point to step up and make plays," Morgan said. "If I'm not there, then that could be the end of our season."
Michigan already passed one big test in this NCAA tournament when the Wolverines picked apart Virginia Commonwealth's press on the first weekend. Syracuse's 2-3 zone figured to pose a different set of challenges — but Michigan has a deep roster of shooters.
That was obvious in the first half. Burke scored only three points in the half, but he had plenty of help. LeVert, who looked like he might redshirt at the beginning of the season, made a 3-pointer with 11:25 left in the first half. That snapped a dry spell in which the Wolverines missed eight straight 3s.
"We all tried to come in and give quality minutes off the bench. I think we did," LeVert said. "They really keyed in on Trey and I found myself open a couple of times."
LeVert's second 3-pointer gave Michigan an 18-17 lead. Then it was Albrecht's turn. Burke's backup at point guard connected twice from long range, and after Burke made a long 3-pointer of his own, the Wolverines led 36-25 at halftime.
LeVert had made only 11 shots from 3-point range coming into the game. Albrecht had made only 12.
Michigan was doing what no other team seemed capable of lately — the Wolverines were beating the zone by shooting over all those long-armed defenders and moving the ball well enough to create more space on the perimeter.
LeVert's main contributions this season have been at the defensive end, and Albrecht's job is usually to take some of the ball-handling pressure off Burke. Any scoring Michigan gets from either is a bonus, but on this night, those points early on were big.
In the second half, the Wolverines wore down a bit. But they held on, thanks to Morgan, who had struggled to come back from a right ankle injury.
The 6-foot-8 junior, an elder statesman on a team with several important freshmen, was on the court at the end — and boy did Michigan need him.
"Jordan Morgan came off the bench and did a fantastic job for us," Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "He goes out and makes a lot of plays that we don't see out there."