SEATTLE — Finally, when they were close enough to smell the gumbo, the years seemed to melt off them, the pressure, the spotlight, the endless questions that had put wrinkles on their confidence, dripping off now, as they grew lighter, lighter, until Jalen Rose slapped the ball away — a steal!
— and headed down court with a leap in his step and he was back, all the way back to those summer nights in sweaty gyms when no one was watching and basketball was fun, and he lofted this perfect floater to a soaring Jimmy King, who brought it out of the clouds and through the rim. Whomph! Enough force to smash a ticket window in New Orleans.

Fab to the Four.

Again.

“That looked like the most fun you’ve had this whole tournament,” someone said to Rose of the alley-oop basket that broke the back of Temple on Sunday, and helped Michigan to a 77-72 victory and a second consecutive Final Four.

“That’s because it was,” Rose said, grinning. “It was.”

Here, in the thick of March Madness, was a case study in American celebrity. The Fab Five were no longer freshmen, they were no longer darlings. They had gone from national adoptees to, in the words of one Seattle journalist, “the official villain of the NCAA.” In one year? How hard did that make the first four rounds of this tournament? Knowing they could never win, they could only lose, and defeat would leave the hounds lapping at their blood?

Here’s how hard: It had sucked the life out of their game. Left them listless, missing shots and rebounds and box-outs, slumping in press conferences, dragging through hotel lobbies, meandering through much of their first three games with the enthusiasm of a drugged animal. Win? Yes, they won. But it wasn’t until that second half Sunday, when a Final Four brass ring was close enough to grab, that they finally found the joy that used to define their basketball. Rose put back a lay-up. Juwan Howard banked one home. Ray Jackson spun in midair, hung, drew the foul, then dropped the shot for good measure. And King came out of heaven for that last Michigan basket of the day. You looked, and, hey, they were smiling.

Kids do that, you know.

“I feel replenished! I feel renourished!” gushed Chris Webber in the locker room afterward. “I guess I sound like a Gatorade commercial?”

Fab to the Four.

Again. Emotional underdogs

In a way, this is hard to believe. For here is how difficult things had gotten. Against a Temple team that had lost 12 games, that was seeded seventh in the West, that wasn’t even ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the season, Michigan was, on Sunday morning, an emotional underdog. Maybe not in Vegas. Maybe not in the office pools. But everywhere else. People expected the Wolverines to fall, for they had been stumbling against the likes of Coastal Carolina, UCLA and George Washington, and while they won those games, there was little of the old joy or confidence. Temple had usurped that role. Temple, under Yoda-like coach John Chaney, was the team with young players and fresh dreams.

And for a while Sunday, it looked as if the Owls would indeed cash in. Temple opened a 10-point lead just before halftime, and Michigan, once again, was turning the ball over, missing box-outs and getting no fast breaks and few outside shots. In the locker room at halftime, Steve Fisher did an unusual thing, for him anyhow: He got all over Webber.

“He kept yelling at me, ‘You’re playing like a high schooler, you’re not playing like a man!’ ” Webber said. “He kept saying it over and over, ‘You’re playing like a high schooler!’ He got me mad, and I realized I had to listen to my coach and to prove him wrong.”

Fisher may never get credit for this. He rarely gets credit. Critics will still say Bob Knight does it better, or Mike Krzyzewski does it better, or P.J. Carlesimo does it better. But those guys all are out of the tournament and Fisher’s team remains. Those are the facts. And Webber did play like a man in the second half, grabbing rebounds, making huge blocks, and keeping his effort strong, even when he missed four shots in a row.

And slowly — dare we say, patiently? — Michigan came back. The Wolverines drew fouls. They pushed the ball inside. They made Temple play Michigan’s game, and it is not a game Temple can handle. Ultimately, the Owls sealed their own doom, with a technical foul on Chaney with less than two minutes to go. The wizened coach is a master at words and a master at public relations, but he is also a bit of a hypocrite. He criticizes Michigan for taunting, says that stuff has no place in the game, yet he is as profane as they come when it comes to sideline antics. You could hear his swearing from across the floor. Several Michigan players also insist he urged Temple to
“get them” when Wolverines drove down the lane. His hatchet-job emphasis was evident in the five quick fouls of thug-like William Cunningham, who had no shots, no free throws, but countless elbows and forearms before fouling out with 10 minutes to go.

“I have young players and they were being taken advantage of,” Chaney said. “Michigan was pushing under the basket and getting second and third shots. . . . The behavior itself may have been profane.”

Well. No sense debating it. Chaney’s “T” led to two more free throws and a possession for Michigan, and from that point it was simply a foulfest to the buzzer.

Oh, yes. Did we mention Michigan scored its last 11 points on free throws?

OK. So Michigan had 16 attempts. You want it to change completely?

“We just weren’t ready for that sad plane ride home,” said Rose, who answered critics with 13 points in the second half. “You know, where everyone is quiet, and you cry tears of anger? That’s what kept us scrapping.”

Fab to the Four. Before we look ahead . . .

And so the final picture from Seattle is the Wolverines collected in a bouncing huddle at mid-court, doing a shake they called “the G-Dance”
(according to Jackson) then climbing up ladders to cut down the nets. King, who has saved this team countless times with big plays, pointed the scissors at the crown and waved. Even shy Eric Riley, who sparked the team with nine points off the bench, raised a fist.

Next stop, New Orleans. But before we talk about Michigan’s chances against Kentucky, before we analyze matchups, or worry about the lights in the Superdome — stop, and take this down, because this is important: No matter what happens next, no matter if they lose by 100 points, what these Michigan kids accomplished this weekend was 10 times harder than what they did last year. And it should be appreciated.

Why? Because the weight of expectations was on every missed shot this season, on every shoulder when a rebound was lost, on every hip when a box-out was forgotten. They have won 30 games, these kids, and lost four — four games! — and yet people cluck their tongues as if they wear scarlet M’s on their chests. Yes, they should be more disciplined. Yes, they should work on free throw shooting. Yes, they should box out, and be more patient. That is fair criticism.

But when that criticism comes from every corner of the globe, from every TV set, every newspaper, every casual observer, it can make you feel as if you live under an anvil.

On Saturday, the five sophomores slumped in front of the nation’s media, answering yet another round of questions about their attitude, their intensity, where their game had gone. They mumbled answers. They shook their heads. Webber made the comment, somewhat cynically, that, “if I’m not gonna be paid to play this game, it oughta be fun.”

So it was nice to see them in more youthful spirits Sunday, laughing, dancing, running into the Michigan fans section and burying themselves in the crowd. We forget sometimes that this is college basketball we’re watching. Remember college? Frat parties? Frisbees? It’s not supposed to feel like a slaughterhouse.

“I said yesterday I felt like a 20-year veteran,” Webber gushed. “But now, I feel like I’m 20 years old again. It’s like, ‘I’m 20! I’m 20! I’m 20!’ “

And 2-for-2.

Fab to the Four.

Again.

For the second year in a row, the Wolverines have reached the semifinals of college basketball’s championship tournament. On Saturday, NORTH CAROLINA will play KANSAS, then MICHIGAN will meet KENTUCKY. The winners will play next Monday for the NCAA title. Coverage, Page 1C.

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