CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bombs away. How else do you beat the armed forces? Stop, pop — drop, drop, drop. The line that really separated Michigan from Navy Thursday night was not the Vegas spread, but the white curve on the court where two points become three. In military terms, U-M held the high ground.
“How happy are you right now that there’s a three-point play in college basketball?” someone asked Garde Thompson after he scored — what else? — 33 points on a seemingly endless string of three-pointers as Michigan beat Navy, 97-82, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“How happy?” said Garde the guard, his face beaming. “Real happy. That’s my ticket.”
Yeah, that’s his ticket. And he punched it Thursday night, over and over. How hot was Thompson? His bad shots were the ones that banked in. When he dunked, his average went down. Gary Grant did an equally magnificent job on defense for U-M. But the image that endures is the ball leaving Thompson’s steady hands and arching high over the gaze of Navy’s center David Robinson, who did everything except the impossible in his college farewell.
“That guy,” said U-M coach Bill Frieder of Robinson afterward, “is the best player I’ve seen in all my years in college basketball. And I’ve seen a lot of great ones.”
Here was a night in which brilliance was on display in both teams’ colors. Thompson’s 9-for-12 shooting from beyond the white line was matched in glory by Robinson’s 50 points — yes, 50, that is not a typo — on 22-of-37 shooting, mostly from the inside. Robinson hit every kind of shot, from every kind of angle, and much of the time he looked like a guard doing it. Can there be a better compliment for a center?
“Did you feel like it was you versus Thompson out there one- on-one?” Robinson was asked afterward.
“If it was,” said the senior, allowing a sad grin, “I’m gonna lose every time. He gets three for every two I get.” A sinking supporting cast
Yes. Three for two. That is the equation that summed this one up. Credit Frieder with the correct game plan: Let Navy go to Robinson all night but make sure no one else does anything.
Robinson was clearly the most dominant player on the floor, 7-feet-1 of amazing grace. The problem for Navy is that they reversed a nautical formula: In their fleet, the battleship pulls the tugboats.
The supporting cast around the big guy is weak, like summer stock players on stage with Olivier. When the Wolverines began to take advantage of this, the game was theirs. At one point in the second half, Robinson, all 85 inches of him, had to dribble the length of the court and bank it in himself. It was courageous. It was not enough.
“He went by me like I wasn’t even there,” said Thompson. “It wasn’t me against Robinson. It was Robinson against us.”
Three beats two. Five beats one.
And as the second half wound down, the Navy team, desperate to catch up, became a poor imitation of U-M — one short-haired guard after another pulling up and firing from three-point range. Their shots swerved out of the rim or clanked off the side. And then the real Garde would come down and pop another one, soft as pudding.
In the end — with Glen Rice adding 21 and Grant playing his usual shut-em-down defense — the team won out over the individual. The truth is, Robinson could whip any one Michigan player. He just couldn’t whip them all.
“You know,” said Frieder afterward, his hair sweaty, his tie dangling wild.
“Years ago I tried to get in the Navy and they wouldn’t let me because I was too short. Now that guy is in there so big . . . it ticks me off a little.”‘ The night belonged to U-M Well. OK. When Frieder starts making jokes you know the game is history. And so it was. Now Michigan moves into the dreaded second round, where they have been eliminated the last two years.
“We just have to forget about that,” said Thompson. “Past is past.”
So it is for Navy and their hero this morning. On a time-out with two seconds to go in the game, the announcer informed the crowd that Robinson had been named the Naismith Award as college basketball’s top player. The crowd roared as he waved sadly, a bittersweet salute to college ball.
The rest of the night belonged to Michigan, which, simply put, did what it had to do. U-M certainly won’t have this equation in the next round. But that is tomorrow.
The story of Round 1 is a guard named Garde and a midshipman that was ultimately pulled down by those sinking around him. Bombs away. Michigan goes on.