Wrapup Optionial Michigan 83, Illinois 81
SEATTLE (AP) _ After 33 lead changes, the biggest change of all was for Michigan. The Wolverines finally beat Illinois, and they were in the Final Four’s championship game.
And Illinois, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in America, was beaten on an offensive rebound.
″This is sweet because I think the Illinois players thought they were going to come in and beat us for the third time,″ Michigan’s Glen Rice said.
With two seconds to play, Sean Higgins took an offensive rebound and scored from short range, giving Michigan an 83-81 victory in Saturday’s semifinal.
″We were really pumped up to play as hard as we could. ... This is a lot sweeter,″ Rice said.
Michigan coach Steve Fisher wasn’t sure this victory was better because the vanquished was Illinois.
″I should agree with him (Rice) because he’s a great player, and he might get mad at me, but I’m not going to,″ Fisher said. ″I’m just pleased and proud we got that victory. I don’t care if it was against Duke, North Carolina or St. Mary’s grade school.″
Is this still a dream world for Fisher, who took over for Bill Frieder just before the tournament started?
″It is, and don’t wake me until Tuesday,″ he said.
The loss ended a 10-game Illinois winning streak and was the first this season for the Illini with playmaker Kendall Gill in the lineup.
″I didn’t notice much difference in Michigan″ from the two regular-season Big Ten meetings, Illinois coach Lou Henson said. ″We went as strong with them as we could. We just didn’t do that good a job (on the offensive boards). We couldn’t win the battle of the boards. If we do, we win the ballgame.″
Michigan, which took 17 offensive rebounds to 13 for Illinois, now heads to its the championship final against Seton Hall Monday night. Seton Hall beat Duke 95-78.
The victory was sealed when Rice, Michigan’s hottest hand during the tournament, intercepted a length-of-the-court inbounds pass by Illinois’ Steve Bardo as time ran out. As Bardo ran the baseline, trying to get the ball inbounds, Terry Mills ran right through a pick, but Henson said it wasn’t a ploy to try to draw a foul.
″We just thought we could get a good shot, but they didn’t run the play we thought they would,″ Henson said.
Rice led the Wolverines with 28 points, three less that his tournament average, in a game that was so close in almost every statistical category that the only real difference was the final score.
Illinois, ranked third in the nation at season’s end, had the speed. Michigan, ranked 10th, had the size. In two previous Big Ten Conference meetings this season, speed won.
This time, Michigan used a combination of its size advantage, the scoring of Rice, the ball-handling of Rumeal Robinson and the 16 rebounds of center Loy Vaught to prevail.
″The difference today was that we wanted to play to the best of our ability, and the guys worked hard to keep them off the boards,″ Rice said. ″That’s what won the game.″
The winning basket came when Mills, the Wolverines center, launched a long- range jumper from the right corner. Higgins was on the other side of the basket, and when Mills’ attempt was long, the rebound came off to him.
″A shot like that always rebounds on that side unless it’s short,″ Higgins said. ″Coach is harping on that all the time. I knew I had to be over there or I’d be chewed out.″
Mills said the whole play probably was backward.
″I took the shot. It came off and luckily Sean was there,″ Mills said. ″But I probably should have been the one to get the rebound, and Higgins probably should have taken the shot.″
The lead changed 17 times in the first half, which wound up with Michigan holding a 39-38 lead. The biggest lead of the game was eight points, 16-8, on two free throws by Illinois’ Nick Anderson just 5 minutes into the game.
Michigan outscored Illinois 12-6 to start the second half, getting six of those points from the 6-foot-10 Mills, who is three inches taller than any of Illinois’ starters. That run gave the Wolverines a 51-44 lead with 15:35 left.
Illinois, however, scored 10 of the next 12 points, getting four from Lowell Hamilton, to lead 54-53 with 11:26 to play. No more than four points separated the two teams the rest of the way.
For Michigan’s interim coach, it was the fifth straight victory in an undefeated coaching career that began in this tournament. For Illinois’ Henson, whose career record is 535-249, it was a major disappointment.
″Our team in the eyes of some will go down as a pretty darn good basketball team,″ Henson said. ″In my eyes, they will go down as a team with a great performance. They tried to do it tonight but just couldn’t quite get it done.″
Henson had taken Illinois into the tournament for seven straight years before reaching the Final Four, only to lose to a team he had beaten twice during the season. His Fighting Illini were even ranked No. 1 for a week in January, but now that honor will fall to either Michigan or Seton Hall.
″We looked like a junior high school team out there,″ Henson said. ″Michigan is an awesome team.″
With Gill, who missed a portion of the season with a broken foot, in the lineup, the Illini were 23-0 this season. Now, they are 23-1.
″The third-game jinx doesn’t matter to me,″ Gill said. ″We just didn’t play that well, period. Some key rebounds went their way. We just didn’t get the big rebounds.″
Robinson and Higgins each scored 14 for Michigan, now 29-7, while Kenny Battle had 29 and Anderson 17 for the Illini, 31-5. Gill had 11.
Michigan shot 47 percent from the field, Illinois 45 percent. Michigan had 45 rebounds, Illinois 39.
When Michigan called time out with 1:36 to play and Illinois ahead 79-78, both teams had hit 17 of 34 shots in the second half.
Mark Hughes created the final lead change of the game, rebounding a miss by Mills, then converting a three-point play to put the Wolverines ahead 81-79 with 1:09 left.
Illinois called time out, and when the Illini came back, Battle hit a short jumper in the lane, tying the score at 81 with 33 seconds left. Robinson took the ball upcourt for Michigan and ran the clock down to the final few seconds before finding Mills in the right corner.
Mills’ 3-point attempt was long, Higgins took the rebound, put it in and Michigan was ahead 83-81.
Now, it’s on to Seton Hall with each team trying to win its first national title.
″Hey, it’s not over yet,″ Michigan forward Mike Griffin said. ″Look at the teams Seton Hall has beaten. They are for real. They beat a good Duke team today. They beat Nevada-Las Vegas, and they beat Indiana, a team that beat us twice.″