TUCSON, Ariz. — They were hanging on the cliff, staring into the abyss. All their promise, all their expectations, the entire weight of their own curious legend had suddenly come crashing down on them, knocking them to the floor, every UCLA jump shot that burned the nets, every UCLA steal that left them watching in disgust. It was all collapsing, in jeers and criticism and nerves and sweat, forcing them toward this black hole that taunted, “Wait till next year, maybe next year. . . . “
And then the thought came:
This is next year.
And so the Michigan Wolverines, who act too young or too old for almost all their critics, dug inside and found the one characteristic that is simply ageless. You either have it or you don’t: the will to defend your honor.
From the lowest moment, when they fell 19 points behind a smoking-hot Bruins team, to the peak, overtime, two seconds left, Jimmy King rising like destiny to grab a missed shot and bank it in — from bottom to top, that was the most grueling climb this team has ever made.
And do you know what King did when he sank that shot, the shot that sent a shiver through every fan who ever wore maize and blue?
He ran to the scorer’s table, pointed at student manager Gabe Brown, who was keeping stats, and said, “That’s a rebound, too.”
Back from the brink.
“Oh, man! I need a new valve in my heart!” screamed Jimmy King Sr., the guard’s father, after Michigan outlasted UCLA, 86-84, in one of the best second-round games ever played in an NCAA tournament. It was that type of show. So draining, so exhausting, that when it ended, you felt as if you’d played yourself. Your armpits were wet, your breath was quickened, you wanted the coach to take you out for a rest.
“I was thinking it’s the year of the upset,” Chris Webber admitted. “And when UCLA threw up that last shot (a desperation heave in the final second) I was just praying it wouldn’t go in. I was saying, ‘Don’t go in! Don’t go in!’
It clanked off the rim.
Back from the brink.
‘Biggest win ever’
“We are on cloud nine,” said a weary Steve Fisher, who can be questioned for his team’s first-half collapse only if credited for its second-half comeback. “I am as proud as I can be of our kids.”
Heroes? There were all sorts of heroes. King was the biggest, if only for his timing. The kid whose languid style makes him automatically slouch in every chair he ever sits in, somehow zoomed his way to the ball at the two most crucial moments: the winning basket in overtime, and the steal he made at the end of regulation, off water bug guard Tyus Edney, who could have ended Michigan’s season right then if he’d gotten a shot in the air. Instead, King somehow sucked up Edney’s pass. Next thing you know, he’s clutching it like a father clutching his child in a fire. The buzzer sounded. The score remained tied. If King doesn’t make that steal, the Wolverines don’t see overtime. They don’t see anything except next year.
Then again, if they don’t dig themselves out of the 19- point hole, there is no ending to worry about. And for that, you must credit the entire team. You credit Juwan Howard, spinning inside and letting go that beautiful, high-arching jump shot that barely kisses the net. You credit Webber (27 points), who shook off his recent dust and fought for 14 rebounds and for second-chance shots that he slammed through the rim with authority. You credit Ray Jackson, who found the energy to move when others were frozen with nerves, saving rebounds, laying in the ball on drives. And you credit Jalen Rose, who was both his best and his worst Sunday, making unbelievable three-point bombs to whittle the lead, yet losing the ball trying to dribble between his legs, and watching Shon Tarver steal it, convert it, and bring UCLA back to life with 2 1/2 minutes left in regulation.
“To me, this was the biggest win we’ve ever had,” Rose said, “because we showed people that Michigan can have lapses, Michigan can fall behind, but Michigan will never quit. We’ll fight back, and we’ll win.
“And that’s what this game was all about.”
Someone asked Rose to describe Fisher’s halftime speech, after the dismal Wolverine showing.
“Explicit,” Rose said, grinning.
Back from the brink. A sense of destiny
When the story is finally written about this season, Sunday in Tucson may have a red circle around it. In every championship run, there is a game that tests you, walks you to the cave of your biggest fear and says, “You’re on your own.” Sunday was the Wolverines’ time, their time to stare at their biggest terror: failure to live up to expectations. Not others’ expectations. Their own. They firmly believe they can win the national championship, which they came so close to last year. Without a Big Ten title, it is the only medal they can capture.
And so a game like this, where you are a razor blade away from losing it all and somehow manage to come out smiling, well, it can do wonders for your confidence, for your momentum, for your staying power. It can give you this sense of . . . destiny. Last year, the Wolverines had that in their youthful age: Wherever they went, people said, “Five freshmen will never lead a team to a title.” It was liquid motivation. It was rocket fuel.
But now, they are shackled by their age, not propelled. People say they should win it all, this is their year. Which made Sunday, believe it or not, the first time they came close to losing a tournament game in which, if they indeed faltered, they would be considered “losers.”
It was not a pretty thought.
And so they crushed it. Carefully. Methodically. And finally, dramatically. True, it took a clock controversy in overtime before it was official. True, they never should have blown the eight-point lead they earned near the end of regulation.
But if they didn’t make it interesting, they wouldn’t be themselves, would they?
‘Like watching a dream’
In the end, this will be remembered as a classic portrait of the Fab Five legacy. Sloppy at times, too confident at times, overwhelming at times, amazing in the end. And make no mistake: This was a Fab Five game. The five sophomores played all but 24 of the 225 total minutes. They bettered UCLA’s 70 percent shooting in the first half by shooting 73 percent in the second half. They found the ball when they had to, found the courage when they had to, found character when they had to. Thus they advance to something called Sweet 16, although, in truth, they are much older than that now.
“When we came into the locker room, and we were yelling and everything, the
TV was on, and they were showing highlights of the game,” said Rob Pelinka.
What was that like?
“Like watching a dream.”
Back from the brink.
On they go.