INDIANAPOLIS — The shot that Michigan basketball will forever remember was born out of desperation, a dwindling shot clock and a vanishing lead, from a season that began with Finals aspirations. Four but that looked like something much worse in the months leading up to March.
The ball belonged to Eli Brooks, the grad student with more games in a blue-and-corn uniform than anyone in the program’s history. He returned for a fifth season to experience a moment like this, a chance to do better than Wolverines a year ago by reaching the Elite Eight. Losing in the round of 16 was not part of his plan.
Brooks veered downhill to the right side of the arc and threw the kind of looping, arcing hook shot that would have made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud. He floated through the Indianapolis air as a waiting crowd at Gainbridge Fieldhouse held their collective breath. Then he gently splashed the net with the most perfect of rustles.
His incredible shot extended a rocking season and gave No. 11 seed Michigan an insurmountable lead with 53 seconds left against third-seeded Tennessee. This beleaguered group of Wolverines – a group that was shut down due to COVID-19, played several games without their best player and whose coach was suspended for a horrific incident on national television – had pulled off a superb upset, 76-68, Saturday to reach the Sweet 16.
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“I just try to live in the moment,” Brooks said, “and cherish the time that we have with the people that are in my life right now in Michigan. Just enjoy the process of reliving this tournament and have that chance to get our last goal.”
That final goal – to win a national championship – lives on thanks to the stellar performances of Brooks, who scored 23 points in one of the defining moments of his illustrious career, and Dickinson, who played flawlessly to score a game-high. team of 27 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in one night, the Wolverines needed them all. Super sub Terrance Williams II scored six of his nine points in the final five minutes to spark the latest comeback after a 60-54 deficit.
Michigan held the Volunteers to 2 for 18 shots from beyond the arc and didn’t allow a 3-pointer in the second half. Brooks balanced his majestic offensive display with near-relentless harassment of sniper Santiago Vescovi, UT’s second-leading scorer, who finished with his lowest point total (five) since Jan. 29.
“That was the main focus,” Brooks said. “Keep them away from the line and avoid fake shots. We did that. That was the biggest key to winning the game.”
The return of point guard DeVante’ Jones after a concussion sidelined him against Colorado State gave UM an emotional boost, and fans cheered as he spoke for the pre-match warm-ups. But Jones’ presence was fleeting; he only played 12 minutes before spending the second half in the locker room after falling ill with a head injury, according to a team spokesperson.
For most of the first half, Juwan Howard’s side bit on the mouthpiece and turned to the SEC Tournament champion Volunteers. Wave after wave of pressure from Tennessee’s vaunted defense couldn’t faze the Wolverines, who battled a series of early turnovers as they adapted their offense to combat the relentless peddling of five orange blurs fortifying that end of the floor.
A tight defense against Jones, Brooks and freshman point guard Frankie Collins repeatedly pushed Michigan’s starting position near midfield. The lobbed entry passes to Dickinson or the drive-and-kick 3-pointers for Caleb Houstan that have become staples of Howard’s system this season were suddenly blocked. Tennessee came in forcing opponents to commit 15.6 turnovers per game, and UM lost the ball nine times in the first half.
Instead, the Wolverines ran pick-and-pops with Dickinson for a pair of 3s early; or found Moussa Diabate (13 points, 6 rebounds) on a series of rim cuts for close range finishes; or instructed guards to use dribble transfers that minimized Tennessee’s ability to break through passing lanes. When Dickinson swept a free-throw line jumper with 2:29 remaining in the half — an unusual type of shot from an unusual spot for the team’s top scorer — Michigan climbed ahead, 32 -31, to annoy the largely pro-Volunteers crowd.
Howard’s group even recovered from a calamitous streak of four straight turnovers to finish the half by hitting eight of their first 12 shots after the break, tying the game twice and taking a one-point lead. three times. Michigan fans roared as Dickinson blocked a layup attempt, altered another shot after a Volunteers offensive rebound, then dove to the floor in pursuit of a loose ball, ultimately producing a tie.
“We turned the ball over, things weren’t going our way,” Williams said. “But being the most connected team is what Coach Howard talks about, and we were the most connected team. We didn’t part ways even though we made mistakes.”
Portions of the second half were breathless in a game with six draws and 12 lead changes. Every layup from Tennessee freshman dynamo Kennedy Chandler (19 points, nine assists), every midrange jumper from James (13 points, six rebounds) was answered by the Wolverines, who wove their performance together the most daring of the season on the biggest stage. against an opponent favored by seven.
They found an answer for every burst. When the Volunteers built a six-point lead with 8:27 remaining, Williams soared for back-to-back brilliant tricks on a missed 3-pointer by Collins and a layup gone wrong from Dickinson. When the game was tied with 3:21 remaining, Brooks charged down the right side for a layup that produced a traditional three-point play to propel UM ahead, 65-62.
The pad proved large enough to keep Tennessee at bay. Howard’s team closed out the game shooting 8-for-8 from the free throw line to send Michigan to a fifth straight Sweet 16, where anything and everything seems possible given what this group has accomplished in the past. course of the last three days.
As the clock expired, Dickinson tossed the ball into the stands to cap off an extraordinary evening. This incredible, unpredictable, Hollywood-could-not-script-it season continues.
Who knows where it will end.
“Nobody believed in us,” Dickinson said. “Everyone thought we shouldn’t be in the tournament. And now people who hated us are going home to watch us next week.”