As the Michigan Pep Band saluted its basketball team Saturday with “Hail to The Victors,” Virginia must have felt as if it had already endured a hail storm.
The Wolverines bombarded the Cavaliers, 102-65, before a crowd of 22,755 at Rupp Arena in the championship game of the Southeast Regional.
Glen Rice dumped in 32 points on the retreating Cavaliers, and Sean Higgins scored 31 in 20 minutes off the bench. The Wolverines made 58.6% of their shots in extending an improbable ride through the tournament by Steve Fisher, the first interim coach to take a team to the Final Four.
However, such instant celebrity didn’t keep Tim Brant of CBS-TV from introducing Fisher after the game as Steve Frieder.
“I’m not so sure I care what you call me, other than (coach of) one of the teams headed to the Final Four,” Fisher said later.
Who would have thought it?
Until 10 days ago, Fisher was an assistant coach. But when former coach Bill Frieder resigned March 15 to accept an offer to coach at Arizona State, Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler told the Wolverines that Fisher would be Michigan’s coach as long as it remained alive in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
Little did anyone know that the Wolverines would reach the Final Four, where they will play the winner of today’s Midwest Regional final, Illinois or Syracuse, in a semifinal game next Saturday at Seattle.
Or that Fisher would become something of a folk hero.
On Saturday, as Michigan students chanted, “Cut the net, Fish-er, cut the net,” Fisher made his way to the basket at one end of the floor, where his players had left the nylon hanging from the rim by a single thread.
Fisher cut it down and now it’s on to the Final Four.
The Wolverines (28-7) earned a trip by pressuring the Cavaliers at one end of the floor and literally shooting them down at the other.
The former led to the latter.
“They really got frustrated on the offensive end and didn’t really play the defense they’re capable of playing,” Rice said of the Cavaliers, who upset top-seeded Oklahoma, 86-80, to reach the regional final.
Rice said the Cavaliers seemed apprehensive even before the game. “It looked in the warmups like they were really worried about us.”
And for good reason.
Rice made his first six shots, all from long range and the last three from beyond the three-point line, and Michigan, which ranks first in the nation in field-goal percentage, made 10 of 14 to open a 24-12 lead.
“We felt that Virginia may have been a little tight, and so we tried to take advantage of that by being aggressive,” Rice said.
Virginia never loosened up.
The Cavaliers (22-11) never got closer than seven points the rest of the way and trailed at halftime, 44-25, as Michigan made 57.6% of its first-half shots while limiting Virginia to 35.7% shooting.
“What was really deflating, more than the way they played offensively, was the way we played offensively,” said Virginia Coach Terry Holland, whose team was only slightly better in the second half, making 40% of its shots. “I can’t tell you how deflating it is not to be able to score, particularly when the other team is having a big day.”
No Wolverines had bigger days than Rice and Higgins.
Rice, who made 13 of 19 shots and scored 34 points Thursday night against North Carolina, was even more accurate against Virginia, making 13 of 16, including four of five from three-point range.
The 6-foot-7 senior, expected to be a lottery pick this summer in the National Basketball Assn. draft, was named on all 109 ballots as the media’s choice for most outstanding player in the Southeast Regional.
It sounded as if Holland would have voted for him, too.
“It’s hard to rate players off individual performances, but I’ve seen him two games in a row and I’d have to say he’s as fine an offensive player as I’ve seen in a long, long time, especially when you consider his range and his size,” Holland said of Rice, who made nine of 10 shots in the first half. “That combination is very destructive and very difficult to defend.”
Virginia had its hands full, then, trying to defend Rice and Higgins, a sophomore from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles who is two inches taller than his teammate and possesses the same kind of range.
At least, he did on this day, producing a career-high point total by making 11-of-15 shots, including seven of 10 from three-point range.
Higgins helped the Wolverines build a 42-point lead in the second half, making six straight three-point shots.
Holland expected Virginia to make a run after halftime, but Michigan made 14 of its first 18 shots and Virginia continued to struggle.
Especially ineffective was Richard Morgan, who averaged more than 30 points a game in tournament wins over Providence, Middle Tennessee State and Oklahoma, but made only two of his first 13 shots against Michigan.
“The shot wasn’t there today,” said Morgan, who led the Cavaliers with 15 points, but made only five of 18 shots. “I struggled on the release of it and I couldn’t get open to get it off. Then I tried to create things, which was probably wrong. But I fell into that trap.”
Morgan, assigned defensively to Rice, said he was shaken when he realized he could do nothing to slow the Wolverines’ All-American.
“That really deflated my confidence,” he said.
Also enduring a subpar day for Virginia was freshman forward Bryant Stith, who averaged almost 25 points in the Cavaliers’ previous tournament games, but settled for only nine this day.
Sophomore point guard John Crotty had 14 points and seven assists and was named to the all-tournament team, but made only five of 13 shots.
He said the Cavaliers were rushed offensively, which led to their poor shooting percentage and, ultimately, their demise.
“We didn’t get too many good shots,” he said.
Fisher gave credit to the Wolverines for that.
“Virginia could not throw it in the ocean but part of that was Michigan’s defense,” he said. “I thought we did an excellent job coming out initially and pressuring the ball and not giving them easy baskets.
“The more you miss, the tighter you become and I think that led to the lopsidedness of the final score.”
That, and the marksmanship of Rice and Higgins.
“Once they got that working margin and they started feeling good about their shots, they got into a groove,” Holland said.
And set their sights, it turned out, for Seattle.
Southeast Regional Notes
In eight seasons under former Coach Bill Frieder, Michigan advanced beyond the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament only once and never advanced beyond the regional semifinals. . . . Michigan last reached the Final Four in 1976, when it lost in the championship game to Indiana. The Wolverines, who have made three previous trips to the Final Four, also lost in the final game in 1965 and have never won an NCAA championship.
Glen Rice, Sean Higgins and John Crotty were joined on the all-tournament team by Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson, who had 13 points and seven assists against Virginia, and North Carolina’s J.R. Reid. . . . Virginia’s Brent Dabbs scored 12 points and took 12 rebounds against Michigan. . . . Higgins established his previous career high when he scored 22 points this season against Iowa.
Against North Carolina and Virginia this week, Rice averaged 33 points a game and made 74.3% of his shots, including 12 of 17 from three-point range. . . . Virginia’s Richard Morgan, on Michigan’s shooting: “It was frustrating because we were right there beside them and they still hit them.” . . . Morgan had his problems from the field, but made both of his free throws. He didn’t miss in 23 attempts in four tournament games.