Sean Higgins took a rebound of a missed three-point attempt with two seconds left and scored from short range, giving Michigan an 83-81 victory over Illinois in the Final Four semifinal game Saturday.
The victory sends Michigan, playing in its first Final Four since 1976, into the final against Seton Hall on Monday night.
The victory was sealed when Glen Rice, Michigan's hottest hand during the tournament, intercepted a length-of-the-court inbounds pass by Illinois' Steve Bardo as time ran out.
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 numbers that were different at its end were the scores.
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 had won.
This time, Michigan used a combination of its size advantage, the hot hand of Rice, the ball-handling of Rumeal Robinson and the 16 rebounds of center Loy Vaught to prevail.
The lead changed hands 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 1/2 minutes into the game.
Michigan outscored Illinois 12-6 to start the second half, getting six of those points from the 6-foot-10 Terry Mills, who is three inches taller than any of Illinois' starters. That run gave the Wolverines a seven-point lead, 51-44, with 15:35 left.
Illinois, however, scored 10 of the game's 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, Steve Fisher, it was the fifth straight victory in an undefeated coaching career that began in this tournament. For Illinois' Lou Henson, whose career record is 535-249, it must have been a major disappointment.
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 at the end of the season.
Robinson and Higgins each scored 14 for Michigan, now 29-7, while Kenny Battle had 29 and Anderson 17 for the Illini, 31-5.
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 timeout, 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.