LEXINGTON, Ky. — At the buzzer, finally, it was the dark blue that did the celebrating, the dark blue that did the high fives and the glory dance. Rumeal Robinson had his fists waving, and Glen Rice did a little jump step and Steve Fisher was standing there, smiling like a Cheshire cat at the miracle his young team had just completed. The Michigan Wolverines, forever in the wrong colors in this wacky NCAA Tournament, finally sent the sky-blue North Carolina Tar Heels home for spring break. Do not adjust the color on your TV set.
“Michigan won?” you say. “They made it to the regional final? They are one game away from the Final Four? Michigan won?”
It’s true. Dark blue.
Read it and leap. U-M 92, UNC 87. What about the automatic choke on the Wolverines’ psyches? What about “all-flash, no patience”? Take a vacation, reputation. Thanks largely to deadeye shooting by Glen Rice — 34 points, eight three- pointers, an exhausting display of the magic touch — the Wolverines shed their baby skin in glorious warfare Thursday night, marching past the whispers with sudden maturity and a sweat-soaked resolve. Is that really the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels, who always kicked the dreams out of Michigan in these crazy tournaments, walking off the courts with their heads down? Dean Smith, winner of 667 games, bowing out to Fisher, winner of three?
It’s true. Dark blue.
“We’re not going home to Ann Arbor!” yelled Robinson afterward in the jubilant locker room. “That’s what this means. We’re not going home.”
Not yet. Maybe not for a while. Oh, it was close. Close? It could have stopped your heart. And until Rice launched one from the corner with 1:02 left, fell on his butt, and watched from the floor as it swished through the net — three points! Michigan up, 90-85 — and until Sean Higgins, of all people, made both ends of a one-and-one free throw deal — Michigan up, 92-87
— this was not for sure.
It is now. The Wolverines play Virginia Saturday afternoon, and if they win that, they’re off to the Big Show in Seattle. All this from a team that 10 days ago didn’t have a coach.
“Our guys had fire in their eyes,” said Rice, chewing his ever-present gum as if it were just another night at the office. “We pushed it up to another level. And now we go on.”
It’s true. Dark blue. It’s a different team
Now, let’s be honest. There are victories and there are sweet victories, and this one, for Michigan, was a dessert buffet. Remember that it was North Carolina, No. 5 in the country, that eliminated the Wolverines the last two tournaments. And considering U-M’s recent turmoil, and the fact that Michigan had only beaten two nobodies (Xavier and South Alabama) in the first two rounds, there was reason to favor the Tar Heels again.
Yeah. Well. Forget that. Here were the Wolverines, right from the start, showing no nerves, no hesitation. Rice came out firing from across the street, a three-pointer, a three- pointer, a three-pointer. Terry Mills banked
one in and shook his fists wildly. Loy Vaught dropped a shot off the boards and came downcourt pointing at the crowd, with a grimace that said “we mean business this time.”
Never mind that North Carolina’s Jeff Lebo was shooting at a magic rim — five straight three-pointers? Did he really do that? — or that J.R. Reid, once he got into the game, began to assert himself like a man already thinking NBA. Never mind that. The Wolverines took the hardest stones the Tar Heels could throw and shook them off, came back, and fought a war inside.
And the second half was simply breathtaking. If you even thought about changing the channel at home, you should have your remote control taken away. Three-pointers by Robinson. Bankers by Mills. Higgins — swish! Demetrius Calip — swish! Every shot seemed to have a purpose, every kiss of the net seemed say “You go home this time, darling. We’re sticking around.”
And Rice? How can you describe it. You kept thinking “He’s gotta miss this one” and, bombs away, it fell through. In a game that had its own heartbeat, Rice was ice.
“Are even you were surprised when he gets hot like that?” someone asked Robinson of Rice’s magnificent shooting.
“Naw,” he said, “I expect him to make them by now. In fact, I get p—-d off when he misses.”
He did not miss often, 8-of-12 from three-point land. He was the biggest firecracker in this furious, hard-hitting game. By the end, the Wolverines were playing with foul trouble, playing against their reputation, playing a team that never quits. So? This is clearly a new team, led by Rice, Mills and Robinson, and an apple-cheeked coach named Fisher, who has yet to lose a game.
O come, all ye doubtful.
“I don’t know who got the best of our battle, me or J.R. Reid,” said Mills,
“but I know I’m still here, with another game to play, and J.R. is . . . well, wherever he is.”
It’s true. Dark blue. They deserve a few laughs
How long had they waited for this moment? As the Wolverines dressed to go back to the hotel, they seemed lighter, happier. No matter what happens on Saturday, you have to feel good this morning for Michigan. This is the furthest they have gone since 1976, the furthest they have gone since Bill Frieder took over the program. People seem to forget that the criticism Frieder received for not taking his teams further in these tournaments showered down on the players as well. After all, it wasn’t Frieder chasing those North Carolina passes last year. It wasn’t Frieder being called for fouls. It wasn’t Frieder on the floor, sweat in his eyes, elbows in his chest, as another season ended just a little too soon.
It was the players. And it was the players, rightfully, basking in the glory Thursday night. They seemed happier, and they seemed a little older. Mills spoke of being patient — Mills? — and Higgins spoke of living up to his potential — Higgins? — and Fisher spoke of the great Michigan victory, and he sounded like a veteran head coach.
“How did you feel when Rice hit that clutch three-pointer?” someone asked Fisher.
“Which one?” he said.
Laughter. Smiles. The annual embarrassment that had been the NCAA Tournament suddenly, in one night, became a big rock candy mountain, where Seattle is just around the bend and anything seems possible.
“The Tar Heel is off our back, you might say, ” said Robinson.
It’s true. Dark blue. CUTLINE Sophomore forward Sean Higgins hugs senior forward Glen Rice in the closing seconds of Michigan’s NCAA regional victory over North Carolina in Lexington, Ky., Thursday night.