ATLANTA — It seemed so unlikely to come to this, with Brandon Triche — a four-year starter at Syracuse — dribbling the ball on the perimeter, the Orange trailing Michigan by just two points, the clock ticking down under 25 seconds. Syracuse’s regular point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, was on the bench, having fouled out. So it was up to Triche, ball in his hands, to make one more push in a game the Wolverines seemed to control only minutes earlier.
And for the second time on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, at the most crucial moment, 75,350 people sucked in their breath and bugged out their eyes — and a whistle blew.
Triche’s drive to the basket, which could have brought Syracuse even with Michigan for the first time since midway through the first half, ended when he ran into Wolverines forward Jordan Morgan. The call — there had to be a call – went against the Orange: a charge, Triche’s fifth and final foul. And though the Orange had one more chance down three points, the charge was the pivotal play in Michigan’s grinding 61-56 victory that put the Wolverines in Monday’s championship game against Louisville.
“I probably should have made a better decision,” Triche said. “I probably should have pulled up. . . . I did see him, but I was already in the air jumping, so I was just trying to make a play for the team.”
Debate the call from now to eternity. “Those plays can go either way,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. But add it, definitely, to the whistle that blew in the waning moment of Louisville’s earlier victory over Wichita State. In that instance, officials called for a held ball that gave the Cardinals possession again, even as the Shockers felt they had possession.
Either way, the Wolverines (31-7) survived — and that’s what this was, survival, because an eight-point lead with just more than three minutes remaining got whittled to one.
They survived despite the fact that point guard Trey Burke, who pulls in a different player of the year award on a near-daily basis, hit just 1 of 8 shots and scored seven points.
They survived despite the fact Tim Hardaway Jr. missed 12 of his 16 attempts, despite the fact that sharpshooter Nik Stauskas didn’t make a field goal.
What the Wolverines got were contributions from just about everyone else. Mitch McGary, the rugged and rapidly improving freshman forward, scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Glenn Robinson III, like Hardaway the son of a former NBA star, hit 5 of 7 field goals for 10 points. And Michigan got something — a point or a rebound— from each of the nine players it used.
“It’s not a one-man team,” Hardaway said. “That’s why it’s a team — a team win.”
So what is left for Monday will be a floor full of talent, one of those finals that will pit plenty of future professional rivals and teammates against each other. Both Louisville and Michigan were ranked No. 1 at some point during the season. Now they will finish it.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said.
The late matchup in the semifinals was so intriguing because the team’s styles differed so greatly.
The Orange arrived in Atlanta anchored by its unwavering defense, a zone that has been examined and dissected but not solved. It has, as Boeheim reminded inquisitors at every turn, been reliable all year, but it had been otherworldly in the tournament.
In the four-game run to the Georgia Dome, Syracuse allowed opponents to shoot just 28.9 percent from the floor, an incredibly low 15.4 percent from three-point range. The zone amounted to a roundhouse right, stunning opponents, knocking them back.
Michigan, though, had the perfect counterpunch. In their four NCAA games, the Wolverines had made nearly half of their field goal attempts (49.4 percent) and shot a deadly 40.2 percent on three-pointers. Michigan scored at least 71 points in each of its tournament games. Syracuse hadn’t allowed more than 60. The trends were well established. What, if anything, would give?
“Our defense was good enough,” Boeheim said. “Our offense wasn’t.”
Until it was all but too late. Carter-Williams, a stud on the run to the Final Four, missed 5 of 6 shots and scored just two points. Senior wing James Southerland missed his first seven shots, and with 3 minutes 52 seconds remaining, McGary hit a foul line jumper that gave the Wolverines what appeared to be a comfortable 53-45 lead.
But somehow, right then, Michigan became antsy.
The Wolverines failed to score on three straight possessions. McGary clanged two free throws with 48 seconds remaining, and when Southerland finally found a way to get a three-pointer to go down, here was Syracuse, within 57-56 with 40 seconds left.
Burke followed by hitting just the second of two free throws, giving Triche his chance.
Carter-Williams normally would handle the ball in such a situation, but he had fouled out on another too-close-to-call play, this one involving Burke. The Orange was going to look for Southerland for another three, but Michigan switched.
And here came Triche.
“Brandon made a really good play,” Boeheim said. “He made a really good play to get down there. You want to go to the basket.”
But when you get there, you want to get the call.
“In a game like that, you’re gonna have plays that go your way,” Triche said, “and plays that don’t go your way.”
The whistle blew, the charge was called, and with Triche out of the game, little-used guard Trevor Cooney got the shot on Syracuse’s final possession. It wasn’t close, and it turned into a thunderous dunk for Morgan at the other end — the final play of a taut game in which the tweet of a whistle rose above the din, and played a big role in determining the outcome.