SEATTLE — He was racing down the court, his arms wide open, looking for someone to hug, someone to squeeze, someone to celebrate this unbelievable moment. Oh God, what had Sean Higgins done? Grabbed a rebound off a missed baseline jumper, tossed it back through the hoop like honey down a funnel, and sent the Michigan Wolverines to the national championship game in the most fairy tale-ish season we could ever imagine.
“I saw the ball coming off the rim and I just went up, just like they teach me!” Higgins screamed, after the Wolverines had outlasted arch-rival Illinois, 83-81, in the NCAA semifinals Saturday night. “WOOOOOOEEE! One more! One more!”
One more? Against Seton Hall? Could it be possible? A national title for a team that just more than two weeks ago had no coach, no band, and nobody’s confidence but its own? One more? Hey. Why not? Two weeks ago, Higgins was little more than a dizzy but disappointing young talent. And suddenly, in the last few games, he has grown up, sprouted wings, learned heroism. Possible? Anything’s possible now.
Did you watch this slugfest? Here were the Wolverines in the game of their lives, playing a team that had clobbered them twice earlier in the year, slashed them apart in the season finale, the last game they played for Bill Frieder, the last time they lost. There was every reason to be overwhelmed. Every reason to be scared.
Nah. Instead it was Rice popping from the nether lands, and Loy Vaught seizing rebounds as if they were his birthright, and Rumeal Robinson overcoming early mistakes, directing the ball in those final seconds to its glorious destiny.
“The difference today,” yelled Glen Rice, the senior leader, in the midst of a group hug for national television, “was that we made up our minds to win this game. And to keep them off the boards.”
At their feet, the monitor suddenly lit up with a mug of Rice, and the words “28 points.” Then a mug of Illinois Kenny Battle: “29 points.”
“That’s OK!” Rice said. “He can have the one point. We got the W!”
A-maizing. The three-week super team
Is there anything left for Michigan to show us? Already in this tournament, the Wolverines have unveiled supersonic offense, Rice and Higgins shooting from the heavens, a new inside game, with Terry Mills rising to his potential. On Saturday they went up against one of the finest defensive teams in the nation — and out-defensed them. Stuffed shots. Poked away passes. Ripped the rebounds out of their grasp.
It is as if they are cramming an entire season into a single three-week period. Flashing this and that. Giving everyone a chance. Their final play was typical of their dream-like postseason. With the score tied 81-81, the crowd on its feet, the Wolverines worked the ball around, slowly, patiently, Robinson finally whipping a blind pass to Terry Mills in the corner. Five seconds, four seconds. “I knew time was ticking,” Mills said. “I pulled up for the shot. If I make it, we win. If I miss, we go to overtime, right?”
Well. There was the other possibility. He missed, and Higgins was right there, where the coaches had told him to be when someone puts up a baseline jumper. Study the angles. Seventy percent of the time it bounces off the other side. Is this beautiful? Higgins, the kid with the reputation as a tough learner, doing what they told him, grabbing that rock, and dropping it through as if it were just another practice drill.
“Great job!” screamed Steve Fisher, the miracle interim coach, after Illinois called time-out. He pulled his players in close around him. He was not frazzled. He was not nervous.
“Men,” he said, his voice loud but steady, “you have waited since October 15th for this moment. You have a very long second in front of you. Play it hard, smart, no fouls, force a long pass.”
“NO FOULS!” screamed Loy Vaught.
“ONE SECOND!” screamed Mills.
Fisher took a deep breath. So did his team. They put their hands together.
“Poise, pride, teamwork!” Fisher said. Illinois brought it in, a long desperation pass, and Rice intercepted it, fell to the ground, and heard the sweet buzz of victory. One more, now. One more.
“When I touched that ball, I felt a chill through my entire body,” he said.
“I knew we had won, and I never wanted to let go.”
A-maizing. Illini put up roadblocks
Wasn’t that our reaction as well? Never let go? Who can’t relate to this team? Anyone who was ever abandoned, anyone who was ever dismissed as not good enough, anyone who has ever worked as an assistant and felt capable to do that boss job, if only given the chance — anyone like that has got to be maize and blue by now.
What a game. This was by far the toughest yet. The first half was like a Michigan dream — but stuck in mud. The Wolverines dominated the boards, got the easier shots, ran the smarter game, and still found themselves battling for the lead. Loy Vaught was sucking in everything that touched glass, Mark Hughes and Terry Mills did the same, but U-M fouls and turnovers kept the Illini close. At one point, Illinois had shot 16 free throws, Michigan just one. Robinson uncharacteristically bounced the ball off his feet, out of bounds, off his finger, out of bounds, off his ankle, into the defenders’ hands.
When the buzzer sounded, Michigan led by just one point, 39-38. Robinson walked off slowly, heaving a deep breath. Vaught, soaked in sweat, grabbed a cup of water. The speedway to a national title had just slowed to heavy traffic. This would not be easy.
Nothing worthwhile is. But after 20 minutes of the grueling second half, after two throwaways by Mills, after that final moment that will be forever remembered by Higgins’ face, happy as Christmas, there they were, in a victory
pile. One win away from a national title.
What was that Fisher had said the other day? “This is what you expect when you close your eyes and dream?”
They asked him again when the game was over.
“Is this still a dream?”
Fisher smiled. “It sure is.” He looked over at Higgins, all smiles, and at Rice, all smiles. “And if it is,” he added, “don’t wake me up until Tuesday morning.”
No problem, coach.
A-maizing. CUTLINE: Michigan basketball players embrace Glen Rice, center, after the Wolverines defeated Illinois, 83-81, Saturday.