ATLANTA — He has the eyes of an eagle and the touch of a card shark. And with his collegiate career on the line Sunday afternoon, he left the floor in three-point territory, raised the forearm, flicked the wrist, waved good-bye with the fingers — somebody get a video camera, this is beautiful — and the ball arched in glorious perfection, dropping through the net the way a pearl might drop through water.

Swish!

We’re outta here.

“I knew that one was going in,” said Glen Rice, who saw an awful lot of them go in Sunday in Michigan’s 91-82 win over South Alabama. “When you’re on a roll like that, you know before they ever reach the rim.”

Was that pretty? Don’t you just wish you could shoot like that? Never mind all that had come before it. Never mind the ridiculous foul calls that saddled the Michigan stars in the first half. Never mind that South Alabama was playing as if Armageddon hung in the balance. Never mind that Michigan was playing just its second game under interim head coach Steve Fisher, and that the great expectations of this NCAA Tournament had once again settled on the Wolverines’ shoulders like lead. There was Rice, 21 feet away, the game on the brink, and he didn’t even chew his gum any harder.

Swish.

His basket gave the Wolverines an 86-80 lead and seemed to finally prick the bubble of the upstart Jaguars and their screaming fans, who bellowed,
“U-S-A! U-S-A!” at least as well as the crowds in Seoul and Calgary. His teammates came downcourt with renewed purpose; they slapped hands and woke up and seemed to say, “Yes, a No. 10-ranked school should beat an unranked school. Let’s get this done.”

Two minutes later, it was. Michigan had survived Hell Week, it was going to the Sweet 16, and Glen Rice, who scored 36 points in 37 minutes, gets to play at least one more game before he graduates.

Lucky him.

Lucky us.

How do you know when you’re on a streak like that?” someone asked Rice after his 16-for-25 shooting performance, which single-handedly kept Michigan alive on an afternoon when little else seemed to be going right.

“Well, you can feel it inside,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just like, everything I’m gonna throw up is gonna go in. My teammates can usually tell. And they do a lot to get me open.”

Yes. It was hard to deny that. Rice saw more screens than a nation’s worth of porches. He would scoot left and — boom — his defender would run into somebody. He would scoot right and — thud — his defender would run into somebody.

“I can usually tell when the screens are working,” Rice admitted. “You hear certain sounds. Like the opponent going ‘Ouch!’ or ‘Help out!’ Or, uh. . . .

“S—?” someone suggested.

“Yeah,” he said, laughing, “that’s the one you hear most often.”

It was heard plenty Sunday afternoon on the Omni court. Despite a backcourt nicknamed Peanut Butter and Jelly and a forward nicknamed Bread, South Alabama could find no one to, well, cut the mustard against Rice. He left them out to lunch. Stung them like Tabasco sauce. . . .

Sorry. Got carried away.

Anyhow, South Alabama — which played extremely well, and took advantage of some generous officiating — still saw its heroics fall victim to Rice’s deadeye shooting and Terry Mills’ inspired play.

And this morning, Michigan is making plane reservations to Lexington, Ky., for a game against North Carolina.

Now, before the critics jump all over U-M, pointing out that neither first-round opponent Xavier nor South Alabama was exactly top-drawer competition, and that Michigan struggled with both, and that the Wolverines have yet to advance to a round worthy of their talent, well, let’s point out a few things.

How many teams in this tournament lost their head coach the day before they boarded the airplane? How many teams had an army of media trailing, asking how it felt to be abandoned like orphans? How many teams had all these new faces suddenly urging them to win — including Bo Schembechler, who came down Sunday with five of his assistant coaches from the football team. Hey. Who knows? Next time he might bring the whole offensive line.

“Way to go, men,” Bo exhorted as the players entered the locker room after the win. “Hey, Steve. Let me ask you something. What’s with this five-on-eight basketball? Those officials were killing!”

Leave it to Bo to clobber the refs.

In this case, however, he was correct. The refs called 17 fouls on Michigan in the first half and five on the Jaguars. It seemed as if every time Michigan touched the ball a whistle blew. Three U-M starters had three fouls before the half. Just one more thing Michigan had to deal with.

“Am I relieved that this weekend is over?” said Mills, who is getting better every game. “Absolutely. It was hard with all the things that went on. Hopefully on Thursday we’ll be able to concentrate on just playing basketball. We’re not done yet.”

And neither is Rice. He has been a quiet star in his time at Michigan, more comfortable with the 20-footer than the 20- second sound bite. Yet he is a remarkable shooter and the kind of guy you treasure in a game where only deadeye shooting will ensure victory.

“I don’t want to put away my uniform yet,” he said. “I was thinking about that out there, and I just took over.”

And as a result, Michigan advances. Fisher is 2-0 on his new job — albeit two squeakers — and the Wolverines are guaranteed now, without Bill Frieder, to get at least as far as they did with him. On Thursday, it may be Rumeal Robinson or Mills who will be called upon to save them. Then again, it’s hard to pass up a shooting touch like Rice’s.

“He is so good, he ought to be outlawed in the NCAA,” said Ron Arrow, the head coach at South Alabama. “I thought we could wear him down, but he killed us.”

U-M interim coach Steve Fisher, who is perfect in the NCAA Tournament with a 2-0 record, suffers for his team Sunday.

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