LEXINGTON, Ky. — They cut down the net, one player at a time, each taking a souvenir piece for himself. Finally, it hung by a single strand, until the Wolverines found their coach, gave him the scissors, and marched him up the ladder to the rim.
“FISH! FISH! FISH!” they screamed.
“This is a dream,” said coach Steve Fisher, speaking for all of them, after Michigan destroyed Virginia, 102-65, to advance to the college basketball’s Final Four next weekend in Seattle. “To think that two weeks ago nobody gave us a chance — and no one had even heard of me — and now, this. Life is strange, isn’t it?”
Strange and, for the Wolverines, suddenly wonderful. How quickly had this all happened? How fast had Michigan risen from the muck of controversy to one of the fairest in the land? How fast? This fast. About 23 seconds. That’s how long it took Glen Rice to hit his first shot Saturday. From that point, you could start packing.
Overwhelming? Virginia was lucky to leave with its clothes on. Michigan took everything else. The right shots. The right rebounds. All the statistics.
Even for the most maize and blueish, this was spectacular theater from the opening tap, when the Wolverines sprung like a tiger from a shoebox. Rice for three! Sean Higgins for three! Rice for three! Bombs away. They never looked back. Moments before the halftime buzzer, Rice launched his body into an awkward orbit, heaved the ball, and watched it bank in off the glass. Michigan by 19. Did we say 19? At halftime?
We did. And by the second half, the biggest battle was at the pay phones, where people scrambled for airline reservations to Seattle.
“No stopping us now!” sang Terry Mills and Higgins as the cameras whirred.
“No stopping us now!”
Finally, four. Conquering adversity
“What are you going to do with your piece of the net?” someone asked Loy Vaught, the center, in the jubilant locker room afterwards.
“It’s in my wallet,” he said. “I’m gonna keep it for life.”
He looked around at his teammates. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s like we’re so much a team now, you know? We’ve overcome all this adversity.”
Indeed, with each game since the departure of head coach Bill Frieder to Arizona State, the Wolverines have looked more and more like a unit. The laziness that once plagued them is suddenly a memory. The lack of concentration is suddenly almost unimaginable. “We are improving every game,” said Mills. It is hard to picture what might come next.
Saturday was quick death. Virginia should have been given a cigarette and a
blindfold. Here was Rumeal Robinson driving the floor, ducking inside, banking baskets off the glass. Here was Mills, rising like a phoenix, tossing in jumper after jumper. Here was Higgins, who until last week was the resident U-M space cadet, suddenly on fire, stepping back and firing one three-pointer after another. He sizzled for 31 points and forged a whole new reputation amongst his critics.
And Rice? Good God. If there is anything more beautiful than watching this guy shoot, bring it on. He fired from across the street, from Cincinnati, from Louisville. Swish. Swish. Thirty- two points. He had 19 before his Virginia shooting rival, Richard Morgan, had any.
It was brutal, fatal. The scoreboard lit up like a pinball machine. Virginia — which shot a miserable 38 percent — could only pray for the buzzer. And when it sounded, the team that had lost the Big Ten, lost its coach, been abandoned by the pundits and pitied by the fans, had suddenly entered the promised land of college basketball . . .
. . . by kicking down the door.
“When did you know this one was over?” Mills was asked.
“Well, with 15 minutes left, I was ready to break out the party hats and kazoos. But coach Fisher told us to keep our heads in the game.”
“So I did.” United they stand
He talks, they listen. There is a wonderful rapport developing between Fisher, the interim coach, and these kids. And let’s face it, it is largely because of the circumstances. Nothing unites like danger, and, in a Russian roulette tournament, that danger is always one game away. Plus, since Fisher has taken over the team, the Wolverines have had nothing but success. What’s not to like? He is 4-0. There will be no bad times this season for the interim coach and his team — no matter what happens.
Which is not to detract from what Fisher has done. Just calming this team after Frieder split was an accomplishment. Fisher’s most notable touch, however, may be with Higgins. The previously troubled 6-foot-9 swingman has come alive the last two games, thanks partially to a good old-fashioned football chewing-out by Bo Schembechler last week — and thanks partially to Fisher’s kinder and gentler approach.
“With coach Frieder, I was afraid to make a mistake,” Higgins said. “He was a very intense guy. I’m more relaxed with coach Fisher. He lets us play looser, and so I’m not as tense.”
If he relaxes any more, he’s liable to score 50. Higgins shot an incredible 7-for-10 from three-point range Saturday, pulling up and letting fly like a kid shooting in his driveway. He scored his 31 points in 20 minutes. No hesitation. And each shot brought an explosion from the near- sellout crowd, half of which seemed to be painted maize and blue.
“How do you think you’ll shoot in the Kingdome in Seattle?” someone asked Higgins in the news conference afterward.
“Well, I guess we’ll get out there about a week early to get used to it.”
“Uh, Sean,” interrupted Fisher, sitting next to him, “We’re going out Thursday for a game on Saturday. We won’t exactly have a week.”
Higgins grinned sheepishly. Fisher turned to the crowd.
“He just can’t wait to get out there, I guess.”
Finally, Four. Team rebounds from past
Who can blame him? This is a surprise for everyone, a birthday cake that has dropped from the sky. Michigan hasn’t gone this far in basketball since 1976. Sure, people talked about the Wolverines being a great team at the start of the season. But wasn’t that buried under a mountain of criticism, a handful of foolish losses, and the scuttlebutt over Frieder’s sudden departure?
It was. Except in the minds of the players. “Everyone gave up on us,” said Vaught. “But that just made us want it that much more.”
They are getting it now — this team some ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls — one glorious step at a time. Believe it or not, the Wolverines are quickly becoming a favorite story around America — the blushing coach and his suddenly blossoming team. When Fisher came down off the ladder and draped the net cord over the head of his young son Mark and walked off the court with his wife, Angie, and his players, well, there was a sudden sense of family, of pride, of all good things. Newspapers across the country lapped it up.
And who knows? Maybe they’ve got something. Had the season ended Saturday, the Wolverines would have deserved a salute for beating North Carolina and reaching the regional finals. With this latest win, they get a bon voyage and a kiss for luck. And suddenly anything seems possible. Thirty-seven points? Did they really win by 37 points?
“What are you going to do with your piece if the net?” Rice was asked.
“I’m gonna put it in my pocket,” he said, “and hope it brings me good luck.”
How much more can they need.? CUTLINE: U-M’s Terry Mills exalts in victory while atop a ladder to help cut down the net Saturday in Lexington, Ky., after the Wolverines beat Virginia, 102-65, in the NCAA tournament. Coverage starts on Page 1E.