SALT LAKE CITY — The smiles said it all. Weary smiles, puffed by heavy breathing, hands on hips, sweat pouring down their cheeks. Glen Rice smiling, and Terry Mills, a little grin, and Gary Grant almost laughing, his tongue hanging out. This was fun. This was a blast. And this was with 15 minutes left in the game.
Death of a jinx. All Michigan did Saturday was ram a roadblock head-on, barreling through the whispers that a Wolverine team can’t make it past the second round of an NCAA tournament and coming out, well, shall we say, smiling?
“Is the reputation finally behind you?” someone asked Grant, the senior guard, who scored 19 points in U-M’s 108-85 blowout over Florida Saturday. “Is the monkey finally off your back?”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning, “and it was a big monkey.”
Tell us about it. Was there anyone out there who didn’t at least wonder about — if not bet on — another Michigan stumble? Despite excellent talent, no Bill Frieder team had ever reached an NCAA third round since he’d been at Michigan. And he’s been there eight years. That stuff happens enough, you start to believe it.
Forget it now. The monkey’s dead. Will they ever play a better first half than they did Saturday, these five shaved- head starters? (OK. Rumeal Robinson isn’t really shaved, but he’s not exactly shaggy either.) They led by 10 points. Fifteen points. Twenty points. They were so near-brilliant, you swore the Florida players were shielding their eyes.
“Personally,” said Rice, who finally ignored the stitches in his right hand and found that it worked just fine, thank you, scoring 39 points, “I felt we had the game won after the first six minutes.”
Take that. And can you blame him? Not really. Here was that rare moment in basketball when the whole game is a dance and you control the beat. Syncopated magic. Ah-cha-cha-cha. Rice going straight up, the ball coming straight down — three pointer. Loy Vaught spinning up and in and up and in again. Rumeal Robinson driving the lane past one, two, three taller men, banking it home. And Grant. All over. Slapping the ball away, diving, poking, stealing, feeding, swinging back downcourt before his teammates even sank the lay-up.
“I wanted to show right from the start that we came to play,” said Grant, who suffered a poor performance Thursday night against Boise State. “I wanted people to know if this was going to be my last game, I was going to go out fighting.”
He made his point. Somewhere between Thursday and Saturday this group of Wolverine players rediscovered their energy and their confidence. Perhaps it was the scare by Boise State. Perhaps it was the notion that everybody around them was saying they’d choke. But Rice took the bandages off his hand (deep gash) and Grant took the protective brace off his thighs (groin pull) and the whole team said, let’s go, let’s mix it up.
“Were you worried about this game?” Grant was asked. “Were you worried you’d come out flat like the second half Thursday?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I was thinking about it all night. I couldn’t sleep. I talked to the AT&T operator for an hour and a half just to pass the time.”
“What did you talk about?”
“You know, stuff. I got her phone number.”
Aha. An omen. So score one for the maize and blue, and then wrap it up and hand it over to Frieder, the rumpled coach who has had to endure a nasty stigma for too long. This second round had become a fat shadow to the skinny man, darkening his glory.
“I’m just glad I won’t have to hear it anymore,” he said. “It didn’t really bother me. But it got to be a big thing.”
Not anymore. If nothing else in this spin-a-matic win over Florida, the U-M reputation has been smashed like a wine glass off a skyscraper. Not only did the Wolverines blaze offensively, but they shut down every threat the strong Florida team had boasted. The tall and foreboding center Dwayne Schintzius
(who can only be distinguished from Frankenstein by the lack of a zipper on his neck) was sent moping back home, almost unnoticed. Vernon Maxwell, the star Gator guard, was neutralized by Grant better than acid in a stomach full of Tums.
“They were faster than us, they were quicker than us, they outplayed us,” said Florida coach Norm Sloan.
That about covers it.
And OK. On to Seattle. There is no telling what happens next. No guarantees whatsoever for the third round Friday. There is only what has taken place. But in this case, that was significant.
Here’s proof: With 48 seconds left, Gary Grant finally came out of the game, and Frieder was there waiting, ready to give him the old butt slap. Only Grant surprised him. He hugged his coach. The kind of hug you get after a long journey, the kind of hug that shouts “Finally! Finally!” And Frieder, suddenly 100 pounds lighter, his back now monkey-free, took the hug and said to his star: “Nice job.”
Right back at you, coach.