SEATTLE — He stood at the free throw line, the loneliest man in the world. All around him was the enemy, hooting and hollering, the demons in Seton Hall uniforms talking trash, the crowd suddenly an army of “MISS IT! MISS IT!” The referee bounced the ball twice, slowly, like an executioner, and tossed it to him. Life came to a standstill. A school and a nation and a glorious destiny held its breath.
Dribble. Shoot. Swish.
“All right baby!” yelled Glen Rice to Rumeal Robinson. “One more. One more.”
Robinson licked his lips. What was riding on this shot? Only an entire season. Only a fairy tale ending. Only the championship of the world in college basketball. Pressure?
Dribble. Shoot. Swish.
“WOOOOH! WOOOH! WOOH!” screamed Glen Rice, hugging Robinson three seconds later, crying in his arms, after Michigan had hung on to win the national championship in overtime, 80-79, in the most fantastic finish to a basketball season you could ever imagine. “WOOH! WOOH!”
Were there any other words? How else could you describe it? A game that had everything, classic theater, wonderful drama — the first overtime game in a tournament final since 1963. It had heroes and villains and magnificent plays and bonehead plays and moments when you could cut the pressure with a buzz saw, and moments when all the players, good and bad, succumbed to it.
It had Glen Rice, the tournament’s MVP, keeping his team alive all game long with miracle shots, scoring from every angle, yet missing a jumper at the buzzer that could have sealed it. It had Sean Higgins, the young, free-spirited guard, who three weeks ago you wouldn’t trust with his own sneakers, sinking two clutch free throws in the final moments of regulation. It had Steve Fisher, the interim coach, calming his team when it seemed like the world was coming down around them, when the Seton Hall Pirates were stealing everything they touched.
And finally it had Rumeal, a kid who has overcome everything you can imagine, a lost childhood, academic woes, a natural shyness, to become a sterling example of what college basketball should be — and there he was, where he belonged, at the free throw line, proving once again that you can’t write off any team that believes in itself.
“What were you thinking when you were standing there with the championship on the line?” he was asked in the locker room afterward.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, I wish the referee would stop stalling and give me the ball,” he said.
Dribble. Shoot. Swish.
Champions. Who would believe it?
“Nobody believed us,” said Higgins, clutching his little brown box with the championship ring inside. “The people were all saying ‘Seton Hall, Seton Hall.’ Just like at the beginning they were saying ‘Xavier, Xavier.’ They didn’t know how many nights we sat up talking about a national championship. I think it was all that doubting by everyone else that enabled us to win tonight.”
Well, there was certainly enough of that. What a story! Who would ever believe this? A team that three weeks ago had no coach and seemingly no chance? National champions? Not only national champions, but the first Michigan team to ever win that title. Not only national champions, but come-from-behind national champions.
“There were moments when it got a little scary,” said Rice, who wound up with 31 points. “Their defense was really good, and they kept getting me out of my type of offense.”
The final minutes of this affair were enough to make you lose your hair, misplace your heartbeat. Michigan had squandered a 12-point lead in the second half and missed a chance to win at the regulation buzzer, when Rice’s 20-footer thumped the rim once, twice, and out. Overtime? Overtime. The Wolverines fell behind, 79-76. The Seton Hall fans seemed to own the Kingdome. Each Michigan miss brought a roar and fans leaping to their seats, smelling the kill. Wasn’t this supposed to be a neutral court? Where did all this blue and white come from?
But Michigan fought back. Robinson brought the ball up court against a chorus of jeers — “Terry, it’s your shot” he yelled at Terry Mills — and Mills made that shot, a leaping banker, to cut it to 79-78. Seton Hall came back down court, dripping the time off the clock, 20 seconds left, 10 seconds left, finally they took a shot, it missed badly, and Rice caught the ball and dished to Robinson.
“From that point, I wanted the shot,” said Robinson, who raced up court, drove the lane, and was fouled by Gerald Greene. “I didn’t want to put the burden on anyone else’s shoulders.”
Can you believe that? Why not? Didn’t you see him at that free throw line? Wasn’t he the picture of calm — even as your heart pounded in your throat.
“I told him, ‘I made mine, now you make yours,” said Higgins.
“I told him God helps those who helps themselves,” said Mike Griffin.
Everyone had a word of encouragement. Everyone had a piece of heavenly advice. But the ball was in Robinson’s hands, his alone. Pressure?
“I looked at (Seton Hall’s) John Morton and he was grinning at me, trying to unnerve me,” Robinson said. “But I just grinned back at him. Because I had the ball and he didn’t.”
Dribble. Shoot. Swish.
Champions. Thank U-M basketball
Wow. What a story! The only sadness is that it has to end. Didn’t everyone feel a little younger these past three weeks, a little sprightlier, a little bit like we had a 8 a.m. class and a date at the student union? And of course, the game to go to Monday night,
Basketball did that. Michigan basketball: Rice, shooting from the heavens, breaking the NCAA tournament record for points. God, what a tournament. There are rims in Atlanta and Lexington that are still too hot to touch. And Robinson, always with the ball, dictating the creative flow, holding in mid-air then flicking in those two-footers. And Higgins, the baby of the group, with that goofy expression and that flexible-flyer body all over the court. And Mills, with a wing span like a Pterodactyl, rising toward the hoop for a rebound or a jumper. And Loy Vaught, sucking in the rebounds, and Mike Griffin, the unappreciated guy — there’s always one, right? — making the steals or the invisible defensive maneuver. Or Mark Hughes. Or Demetrius Calip. Look at them out there now, cutting down the nets.
And Steve Fisher, the interim coach. Here is the story to end all stories. The hero of second-fiddles everywhere. He took over for the departed Bill Frieder the day before the tournament and never looked back; this morning, six wins later, he is the coach of the national champions. There may still be debate as to whether Fisher earned a five-year contract with this miracle run. There is no doubt he proved himself tournament tough. Tough? He took a wild tornado of talent and harnessed it into a thinking, synchronized unit. In three weeks!
“I am the happiest man in the world right now,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this team and what they did.”
Well, take a bow yourself, coach. Fisher ran this team, not with whips or threats. He did it with kindness, a soothing word, a deep breath, a reminder of all they had done to get here. Admit it. He surprised you, didn’t he? Hey. Steve. Why worry? If you don’t get the job, you can retire a legend. Six wins and a national championship. Let ’em try and beat that.
For now, however, let’s not worry about jobs and futures. Savor these scenes: Michigan clamping on Seton Hall’s star Andrew Gaze, holding him to five points. Higgins stepping away from the free throw line at the end of regulation, having made the biggest shot of his life, then stepping up and making another. Robinson, standing at the line, waiting for that ball —
“C’mon ref, I’m ready.” And finally, when the buzzer sounded, Robinson and Rice locked in that eternal embrace, a hug that would never end, crying, laughing, screaming, doing everything we all would do at a moment like that, all at once.
“WOOH WOOH WOOH!”
There is a famous sign in the football building that Bo Schembechler put up 20 years ago to encourage his players through that tough first season: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions,” it reads.
Paint another one and hang it over Crisler Arena.
Those who stayed are. CUTLINE: University of Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson leaps into the arms of teammate Glen Rice Monday night after the Wolverines captured the NCAA Division I basketball championship with an 80-79 overtime victory over Seton Hall University in the Seattle Kingdome. U-M fans at Dooley’s bar in Ann Arbor cheer while watching the game on television Monday night.