LONG BEACH, Calif. — It was the Wolverines’ worst nightmare, a group of tiny Lilliputians about to kill them with their poison arrows.

What was happening on this suddenly crazy court? The Illinois State Redbirds, a team notable mostly because their coach is barely old enough to remember the Beatles, were taking Michigan to the final buzzer? Illinois State? In the first round?

“I looked up at the scoreboard with a minute left and I said, ‘Whoa, if we lose this, my career is finished,’ ” senior Loy Vaught said after a frantic, but finally victorious, 76-70 opener in the NCAA tournament. “I went running out there and grabbed a rebound, which made me feel a lot better.”

He feels better? Wash the sweat off your face. Send that shirt to the laundry. And then, if you’re a U-M fan, prepare for the same thing Sunday. This is what the tournament is all about. Or had you forgotten last year — when Michigan survived five such scares en route to winning the whole tamale?

Here was Sean Higgins, after a night full of poorly chosen shots, squaring from the three-point line in the final two minutes and burying a beauty. Here was Rumeal Robinson, always there down the stretch, drawing a foul with 43 seconds left, stepping to the line with the crowd roaring and making two in a row. Remind you of anything? Deja vu, perhaps?

“When I called that final time-out, that’s what I talked about,” said coach Steve Fisher, who managed to keep his composure all night, despite the crown nearly falling off his team’s head. “We’ve been there before. Now play like it.”

Easier said than done. What was Illinois State doing with its hands around Michigan’s neck in the first place? Why does this stuff keep happening in these sure-to-be mismatches? Why? Because this is the way of March Madness. Rule No. 1: They are still kids out there, and kids are not professionals. They don’t know how not to be affected by things like strange arenas, new faces, funny bounces.

So it was that a 6-foot ISU freshman named Richard Thomas could scoot through one of the nation’s most famous frontcourts and score over and over. So it was that a kid named Rickey Jackson could bury one three-pointer after another — never mind famous Wolverines who were guarding him. So it was that U-M’s Terry Mills, who has looked awesome against the rugged Big Ten opponents, suddenly came out flat (3-for-15 shooting) against a group of unknowns from Normal, Ill.

So it was that the Wolverines, who were so calm when the whole country was

watching last April 3, suddenly, with a minute left in this pale blue arena,

were gasping for breath and had that dazed look in their eyes. Pressure.

Oh, yes, pressure. You say U-M was playing a bunch of small fries? Maybe so. But while the Wolverines have done a lot since Fisher took over as coach, the one thing they haven’t done is defend their championship in the tournament. Until now.

It proved to be harder than it looked.

At first glance, this was to be no contest. Except for the fact that Fisher attended the school 27 years ago, Illinois State had no claim to the same stage as Michigan. While U-M was compiling its record against Big Ten opponents — seven of which made this NCAA tournament — the Redbirds were cutting their teeth on Butler, Drake, Creighton and Fairleigh Dickinson.

Their tallest starter was 6-feet-7. He was the center. Their most notable personality was new coach Bob Bender, who is younger (32) than almost half the Detroit Pistons. The second- most notable thing is that one of their players, Thomas, is the nephew of one of their other players, Elvin Florez. I’m not kidding.

So it was supposed to be a blowout, right? And yet this is the magic of this tournament. Each team gets at least one shot in its gun clip.

Until the final minute Friday night, it looked as if the Redbirds might have the magic bullet. The Wolverines, for much of the game, appeared far too confident, charging downcourt, somebody trying a fancy pass, something that might look great on a highlight film, providing the ball went in. But more often than not, it didn’t go in. It bounced away or rolled off someone’s fingers, and inevitably, the Illinois State players, who really didn’t know much else, dived and flew and slapped and wound up with possession.

Suddenly, U-M was looking at a deficit. It was watching Mills fire way too hard and Higgins throwing up everything but his lunch. Even Robinson, up to those final minutes, seemed to be forcing things, and he knows better.

“I think sometimes these games against teams that you’re supposed to beat are harder than the ones against teams that are supposed to beat you,” Fisher admitted afterward. “The longer they stay with you, the more confident they get, the looser they are, and the tighter you are.”

If that’s the case, Illinois State was jelly.

And Michigan was almost toast.

Almost. But as the Wolverines kept saying later in the locker room, they know what this is all about. Not a single one besides Vaught admitted even thinking U-M might lose. That’s either supreme confidence or a well-trained PR staff.

Whatever. This sure wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t pretty. If not for a terrific rebounding performance by Vaught (21) and the final cool of co-captain Robinson (24 points), the Wolverines could be headed back home this morning.

And that simply is too close. You could argue that Michigan State, which finished with a better record than U-M, had a similar thing happen Thursday against Murray State. And Missouri, a team ranked higher than U-M, actually lost Friday to some school named Northern Iowa. Fine. But the Wolverines — and this is an old complaint — did not show a lot of discipline in Game 1. They kept playing as if they had a 20- point cushion.

Maybe they can go all the way again with that approach. Good luck to them. But when they walked off the court Friday, they looked as if they had been in a war. Five more wars to go. How many shirts you got?

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