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NCAA Southeast at Lexington, Ky. : Fisher’s Wolverines Defeat Smith’s Tar Heels, 92-87

Times Staff Writer

Instead of hiring substitute musicians, as it did last weekend in Atlanta, Michigan brought its own band and cheerleaders to Rupp Arena this week for the Southeast Regional semifinals.

Carrying the theme a step farther, the Michigan basketball team showed North Carolina Thursday night that it was for real, too.

The Wolverines defeated the Tar Heels, 92-87, keeping interim coach Steve Fisher unbeaten and reducing North Carolina Coach Dean Smith to tears.

“We congratulate Michigan on just a tremendous performance,” Smith said, overcome with emotion at one point. “I think we played very well, particularly in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.”

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Not on a night when Glen Rice scored 34 points from all over the court, making eight of 12 three-point shots, including one from in front of the Michigan bench that was launched as Rice fell to the floor. It gave Michigan a 90-85 lead with 1:02 remaining.

That shot was a killer, someone suggested to Smith.

“Well said,” Smith said.

The Tar Heels’ game plan was to shadow Rice, a 6-foot 7-inch forward who averages more than 25 points a game.

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They did a good job, too.

“We weren’t supposed to give him any daylight, and sometimes we didn’t and he still made the three-point shots,” Smith said. “I think he might shoot better with people flying at him.”

Well said, Dean.

“When they left me open is when I kind of relaxed and missed some shots,” Rice said. “I like the pressure better.”

Mostly under pressure, then, Rice shot the Wolverines (27-7) into the Regional final, where they will meet Virginia (22-10) Saturday for a berth in the Final Four next weekend at the Kingdome in Seattle.

This is the farthest Michigan has advanced in the NCAA tournament since 1976, when it lost in the championship game to Indiana.

The Wolverines never got past the regional semifinals under Bill Frieder, who was their coach until last week, when he accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State and was told by Bo Schembechler, the Michigan athletic director, that he would not be allowed to coach the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament.

That job went to Frieder’s No. 1 assistant, Fisher, a former high school coach who improved his record as a college head coach to 3-0.

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“They’re playing with more of a cause because of all that’s happened,” Smith said of the Wolverines. “That’s not the same Michigan team I saw on tape earlier this year.

“It’s still Bill Frieder’s team, but you have to give credit to Steve Fisher. He’s got them loose and shooting it in.”

Three other Wolverines scored in double figures.

Point guard Rumeal Robinson had 17 points and 13 assists; forward Terry Mills made eight of 11 shots and scored 16 points, and Sean Higgins, a reserve forward from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, scored 14 points in 21 minutes. Higgins, after being fouled while taking a rebound, made two free throws with 27 seconds left to provide the final margin.

It was Rice, though, who did the most damage.

“He makes anyone a good coach,” Fisher said.

Said Smith: “He’s just so consistent. (But) I can’t believe he’s going to do that (against Virginia). It’s one of those things you just can’t believe he’ll be able to keep up.”

J.R. Reid, who was suspended after missing curfew last week and did not play Sunday in North Carolina’s 88-81 second-round victory over UCLA, led the Tar Heels with 26 points, making 12 of 18 shots but only two of seven free throws in 29 minutes off the bench.

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The Tar Heels (29-8) also got 19 points and seven assists from Jeff Lebo, 10 points and 10 assists from Steve Bucknall, and 10 points from Kevin Madden.

Lebo, though, scored only two points in the second half, missing all three of his shots in the last 20 minutes.

What was the difference?

“I didn’t think we did a good job chasing him (in the first half),” Fisher said. “We told our kids, ‘Play tag with him. Put one hand on his hip and chase him. Duck screens rather than fight through them.’ ”

That was only one of the things the Wolverines did right in gaining a measure of revenge against the Tar Heels, who had eliminated Michigan from the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons.

“Michigan took a nice step forward tonight,” Fisher said.


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