March 31, 2013

Michigan routs Florida to earn berth in Final Four

Young Wolverines lean heavily on freshmen to take down Gators

It is a familiar refrain at Michigan, but one that fans have not heard for 20 years:

The Wolverines are headed back to the Final Four with the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan made that happen Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, leaning heavily on the freshman threesome of Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht to join sophomore point guard Trey Burke in making the decisive plays that triggered a 79-59 rout of Florida to secure the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1993.

Stauskas fired away from 3-point range, hitting all six shots he attempted from behind the arc. McGary, making only his sixth start of the season — but his fourth in the NCAA Tournament — added game-highs of nine rebounds and five steals to go with his 11 points.

Albrecht stepped up with seven points and three steals in relief of an ailing Burke, who battled back spasms while contributing 15 points and seven assists to secure Most Outstanding Player honors for his two-game effort at the South Regional.

The result was a decisive, wire-to-wire pasting of a senior-laden Florida team that saw its season end with a loss in the Elite Eight for a third consecutive season. It came on the heels of Friday’s frenetic comeback in an 87-85 overtime upset of a senior-laden Kansas team that was the No. 1 seed in the South Regional.

For Michigan (30-7), which suffered a regular-season loss to Big Ten cellar dweller Penn State (10-21), the reward is a Final Four matchup against Syracuse in a battle of No. 4 seeds in Saturday’s national semifinals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The trip will draw inevitable comparisons between this team and the Fab Five group from yesteryear, which made consecutive Final Four appearances with a starting lineup of all freshmen (1992) and all sophomores (1993).

But that group never cut down the nets at a national championship venue. These young Wolverines still have that opportunity, which motivates guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

“We really want to do that. We want to make a statement and leave our names and legacy at the University of Michigan,” said Hardaway, one of three players on this year’s roster whose fathers had NBA careers. “It means the world. Twenty years have passed and we haven’t been on that stage yet.”

Michigan will get that opportunity in Atlanta because of what happened with surgical precision at Cowboys Stadium. The Wolverines scored the first 13 points of the game and never let the lead drop below 11 in dispatching Florida (29-7).

“Against Kansas, we felt like we came out pretty sluggish. We felt the key today was to come out and throw the first punch,” said Burke, whose team connected with regularity in the early going.

The Wolverines made 7 of 11 shots from 3-point range in the first half, led by Stauskas’ 5-of-5 barrage. Michigan outrebounded Florida 21-14 in the first half, contributing to an 8-5 edge in second-chance points and an 8-2 advantage in transition.

With rare exception, the Wolverines appeared to be the fresher, quicker and more poised team throughout the game despite the Gators’ experienced starting lineup (three seniors, two juniors).

A brief Florida surge in the early stages of the second half cut the deficit to 11, at 47-36, but the Gators came no closer. Michigan built the lead to 25 points before emptying its bench in the final two minutes.

“We just didn’t finish plays at all. And it started right away,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team missed 14 of its first 16 shots while falling behind 23-5. “It’s hard to overcome shooting like that to start a game.”

Forward Erik Murphy, the Gators’ lone first-team All-SEC performer, was held scoreless in his final college game and broke down in tears in the locker room. Murphy finished 0 for 11 from the field, with nine misses in the paint.

Michigan, on the other hand, rarely missed. For the game, the Wolverines — who were 6-6 in their final 12 games before starting NCAA Tournament play — shot 52.6 percent from behind the arc and were 46.2 percent overall.

Stauskas, who entered the game in a mild shooting slump, said he regained his stroke in warmups and urged Burke to get him the ball because he “felt it was going to be one of those days.”

It was.

For Florida, the loss gave the Gators an unwanted spot in tournament history. Florida became the first team to lose in the Elite Eight in three consecutive seasons.

“I don’t think these guys were starry-eyed,” Donovan said. “They’ve been in this position before. I can’t put my finger on why it happened. But we didn’t deserve to win. We were never close today.”

That left Michigan, the youngest team in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, to become the youngest team heading to this week’s Final Four.

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