Wolverines Deep-Six Cincinnati, 76-72
By Alison Muscatine
The Wolverines' victory in front of 50,379 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was a triumph of elegance and fluidity over scrappiness and guts. But it wasn't until the final minutes that Michigan could untangle itself from Cincinnati's badgering defense and show off the pinpoint passing and uncanny teamwork that had brought the young Wolverines this far.
And ultimately, it wasn't even a freshman who turned the game around for Michigan. Although first-year guard Jimmy King led the team with 17 points, it was a junior reserve, 6-foot-8 James Voskuil, who came in and hit a soft, double-pump bank shot with just under six minutes to go that jump-started the otherwise flat Wolverines and put them ahead for good, 60-58.
"We hung on for dear life," said Michigan Coach Steve Fisher. "I can't believe it, but I can believe it. We've got a good team."
In Monday's final, Michigan will play Duke, an 81-78 winner over Indiana.
For Cincinnati, tonight's outcome was disappointing, but the Bearcats' spirited play was further proof that a hodgepodge group of junior college transfers was no fluke on the basketball court.
"We had a great season, we believed in ourselves from Day One and we played hard all season," said guard Anthony Buford. "That's all we can ask of ourselves."
As promised, the Bearcats showed off their quick and damaging full-court press and stalled Michigan's offense for much of the game. In the end, their single biggest deficit -- lack of height -- proved their undoing as they were outrebounded 46-30 by a team that was inches taller at nearly every position.
"They kicked our tails on the boards and there is nothing you can say about that," said Cincinnati guard Nick Van Exel, who scored a game-high 21 points to go along with four steals and five assists.
In the first half, Cincinnati refused to give in to the hype about Michigan or its own reputation as the weakest team in the Final Four. From the outset Cincinnati challenged the Wolverines with a full-court press, double-teaming whoever had the ball and generally trying to create havoc with a kaleidoscope of moving limbs -- legs, arms, hands that constantly pawed at the ball. The perpetual motion worked. Michigan was forced into 12 first-half turnovers and Cincinnati led at halftime, 41-38.
"In the first half it seemed like we had 10 guys on the court," said Bearcats forward Terry Nelson.
As Cincinnati exulted, Michigan worried. "We got down on ourselves," said the Wolverines' Chris Webber, who ended with 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. "A lot of it was lack of emotion. We couldn't get that spark. People were starting to say, 'What if we don't play better in the second half?' "
One big problem for Michigan was the play of Van Exel, a 6-1 guard and the smallest player on the court. He always seemed to have a hand on the ball, once deflecting a Michigan pass and saving it by tiptoeing along the sideline, and another time blind-siding the 6-9, 240-pound Webber with a clean block that was converted into basket and a 46-40 lead for Cincinnati with 17 minutes remaining.
Until midway in the second half, Michigan was flustered and disrupted by Cincinnati's stubborn play. Nothing seemed to click for the Wolverines until Jalen Rose, the 6-8 guard who has been their point man all season, asserted himself and hit a six-footer that tied the game at 54 with just under 10 minutes to go.
Despite their frustration, the Wolverines slowly found their equilibrium. They began to break the Cincinnati traps with more ease, only turning over the ball five times in the second half.
The Bearcats, in turn, were caught in their own vicious cycle: bad shooting led to fewer turnovers, which led to fewer easy points. Without turnovers and baskets on transition, Cincinnati was forced to play a structured offense that didn't work. During a 12-minute stretch, they went two for 15 from the field, shooting 30 percent overall in the second half.
"When you don't score you can't press," said Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins, who wore his lucky brown suit for the game, to no avail. "And we didn't score in the second half."
Even with Cincinnati's bad shooting, Michigan needed inspiration. That seemed nowhere to be found until Voskuil replaced Michael Tally with six minutes to go.
What Cincinnati quickly learned was that Voskuil, who started last season before being pushed aside by the freshmen, was a good shooter. And when he got the ball with 5:41 left and the game tied at 58, he slipped into the lane, double-pumped and banked a feathery shot perfectly off the glass to give Michigan the lead. "He perked us up a little bit," Fisher said. "He's a good player, you know. It's not like we dragged him in off the street. He can play."
Voskuil added two free throws in the ensuing minutes then swished a three-pointer from the top of the key that widened Michigan's lead to 68-63 with 3:01 remaining.
"He came in and broke our back," said Cincinnati's Nelson.
And their spirit. "We became a little tentative, like we were playing not to lose," Van Exel said. "And they took it to us."
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company