Michigan Survives Dogfight With Illini
By Anthony Cotton
With two rock 'em, sock 'em contests during the Big Ten regular season providing the impetus, one of the ultimate games amounted to one of the great in-your-face pickup games of all time. But, after 33 lead changes, it was Michigan that prevailed, 83-81, to gain a meeting with Seton Hall in Monday night's national championship game.
Perhaps befitting the nature of the game, the winning points came on a purely instinctive play. Sophomore guard Sean Higgins rebounded a missed three-point attempt with two seconds to play and his subsequent short jumper was the game-winner for Michigan, playing in its first Final Four since 1976. The Wolverines' Glen Rice then intercepted a length-of-the-court inbounds pass by Steve Bardo of the Illini as time expired.
"We didn't play the game we've been playing of late," said Coach Lou Henson, whose Illini beat the Wolverines in both regular season meetings this year. "Our defense wasn't real good. Offensively, I don't think we played that well, but Michigan had a lot to do with that. But if we get a rebound, we win the ballgame."
For Michigan's interim coach Steve Fisher, it was the fifth straight win in a coaching career that started when Bill Frieder resigned a few days before this tournament began.
"It went down to the last shot and Sean was right there," Fisher said. "Thank God Terry :Mills: missed it the right way."
"He's been telling me all year that shots like that come off the weakside, so I should get myself in position," Higgins said of Fisher. "I was boxed out, but it came out long. Actually, I thought the shot was going in."
Fisher coached hard right down to the end.
"You've got a tough one second," he told his players during the final timeout.
"You've had since Oct. 15 to get to this position. Don't let up now. Play with pride."
There were 15 lead changes in the final 11:25, with neither team able to go ahead by more than four points. Those closing minutes provided some incredible performances.
Michigan led, 78-74, with three minutes remaining. Seconds later, Bardo missed from the left side but teammate Kenny Battle swooped in from the right to grab the rebound. Letting his momentum carry him into the far corner, the senior connected on a three-point field goal to bring the Illini within one.
After a miss by Rice, Lowell Hamilton scored on a jumper from the left corner to give the Midwest region champs a 79-78 edge with 1:53 to play. Over the next 1:20, both Fisher and Henson had an opportunity to set up plays; neither worked exactly as planned, but both met with success.
With 1:09 left, Mark Hughes converted a missed by Loy Vaught for a basket; fouled by Hamilton on the play, the subsequent free throw made the score 81-80, Michigan.
After bringing the ball up court, Illinois took a timeout with 50 seconds left. A short time later, Battle scored on an off-balance shot from the lane to tie the game with 33 seconds to play.
Michigan raced back to the other end, but was unable to get off a good shot. With the shot clock running down, Mills forced a three-point attempt up from the right corner.
The shot barely grazed the rim but Higgins came up with the ball and lofted a high arcing shot back into the basket.
Illinois took a timeout but the inbounds pass for its last-second attempt was intercepted, giving the Wolverines their first win in three games against the last top-seeded team left in the tournament.
Rice led Michigan with 28 points, Higgins had 14 and Rumeal Robinson added 14 with 12 assists. Battle had 29 for Illinois.
Although there was talk before the game that Rice had strained his left hamstring, the only change Michigan made in its starting lineup was a minor one, Vaught starting at small forward for Hughes. Rice did not limp and the Wolverines' trainer, Dan Minert, said the injury was mild.
Rice suffered the slight injury during practice Friday.
Bruce Madej, Michigan's sports information director, said Rice kept ice on the leg overnight.
Illinois, the only top-seeded team in the Final Four, began the game as if determined to live up to that ranking. Battle scored six points and Kendall Gill four to help the Illini to a 16-8 lead with 14:37 remaining in the half.
The Illini still led, 18-13, with 11:41 left when Henson substituted for three starters: Gill, Nick Anderson and Hamilton. Two minutes later, the Wolverines had scored six straight points to take the lead. Henson quickly got Gill and Hamilton back in, but the Wolverines were en route to a 11-2 spurt that put them up, 24-18, with just over eight minutes to play.
Larry Smith scored on a layup and Battle added two free throws for Illinois and, with 6:30 left, Michigan Fisher replaced Rice and Mills.
By the time Rice returned, Illinois had regained the lead, 29-26. That quickly changed, Vaught scoring on a dunk and Rice hitting a three-point basket for the Southeast regional champs.
Over the last 4:38 of the half, neither squad led by more than two points. That's not to say that either Big Ten team was struggling; to the contrary, there were any number of outstanding plays. Anderson made a steal and scored on a slam dunk for Illinois, then stole the subsequent inbounds pass and fed Battle, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give the Illini the lead.
Rice continued to show the style that allowed him to average more than 31 points in four previous tournament games, using a series of picks to snake around from one side of the court to the other for open shots.
Rice was ably assisted by Robinson. The junior point guard was the focal point of Illinois' pressure defense. At times, the traps forced him into hasty decisions and turnovers. On other occasions, though, Robinson was brilliant, slashing through the defense for driving scores or passing off for an easy basket.
Anderson hit a jump shot for Illinois with 2:17 left to give his team a 34-33 lead, but Robinson came right back, converting a drive for the Wolverines. On their next possession, the guard was stripped of the ball and Smith scored on a breakaway layup for the Illini.
Undaunted, Robinson came right back, feeding Mills for a dunk and, after a basket by Anderson, scoring on another move to the basket with 44 seconds left. Those were the last points of the half, as Michigan went to the locker room with a 39-38 lead.
"We were legitimately upset at halftime," Fisher said. "I told the kids I was disappointed that we didn't have an 8- to 10-point lead."
The Wolverines only hit only 44 percent of their first-half shots, but that was better than Illinois' 37 percent from the floor. Rice led all scorers with 12 points and Robinson had 10 with six assists.
Illinois got 11 points each from Anderson and Battle. Gill had seven points and Bardo had five with five assists.
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