ATLANTA — Michigan was the rollicking and shameless offensive team of this Final Four, the squad that would pour in threes and haul itself up and down the court in transition and make the game a pleasure to watch. The Wolverines had All-America guard Trey Burke and burgeoning superstar center Mitch McGary.
On Saturday night, however, Michigan turned its identity upside-down and inside-out. It won with defense and got a key play in the final minute from an upperclassman, Jordan Morgan, who was moved out of the starting lineup with the emergence of McGary.
The Wolverines (31-7), a No. 4 seed in the tournament, same as Syracuse (30-10), showed their toughness on defense and beat the Orange, 61-56, in a national semifinal before 75,350 in the Georgia Dome. Michigan will play Louisville for the national championship on Monday night.
Burke scored just 7 points on 1-of-8 shooting, but Michigan handled Syracuse’s rambunctious drivers and slashers, holding the Orange to 41.8 percent shooting. Syracuse played well enough on defense to win, but forward C.J. Fair was the only player of substance offensively with 22 points. Guard Michael Carter-Williams and forward James Southerland combined to make just 3 of 15 shots.
“We still play in the Big Ten,” Morgan said. “You got to be able play some defense. I don’t think people give us enough credit for the defense we play.”
Morgan made the defensive play of the game with 19 seconds left and Michigan ahead, 58-56. Brandon Triche, Syracuse’s 6-foot-4-inch senior guard, drove down the right side of the lane, but Morgan slid over and drew a charge.
“I was there,” Morgan said.
After Michigan made a free throw to lead, 59-56, the Orange put the ball in the hands of sophomore reserve guard Trevor Cooney. Both Carter-Williams and Triche had fouled out. Cooney drove the right side with nine seconds to play and the idea was to pass to Southerland for a quick 2 and then a foul.
But Southerland got lost to Cooney in traffic and the guard had to throw up a wild shot. It missed, Michigan rebounded, and the ball was sent deep to Morgan for a game-ending dunk.
“They’re playing solid defense,” said Carter-Williams. “They weren’t anything special, we just didn’t get any rhythm on offense.”
Michigan had all kinds of rhythm on offense in the first half when it led, 36-25. It was not going to immediately launch 3-pointers over the Syracuse zone defense. The Wolverines planted swingmen Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. or center McGary at the foul line in a twin high post and bounced passes to them. When the defense closed in, the next pass went to the weakside wing or into the corners. McGary also came out of the low post to hit a 15-foot jump shot, an archaic weapon in today’s game of 3-pointers and helter-skelter rim runners.
McGary had six assists to go with 12 rebounds and 10 points.
The Woverines shot 44.8 percent in the first half, which is respectable against Syracuse. The Orange’s opponents in the NCAA Tournament had shot just 28 percent.
Fair, a 6-8 junior, scored 9 points in the first eight minutes to keep Michigan from rolling out to too big a margin. He is from the same hometown, Baltimore, as another active tall forward for Syracuse, Carmelo Anthony, who carried the Orange to the national title in their previous appearance in the Final Four (2003). Fair looked just as dynamic.
Syracuse pinched its zone in the second half and the hallmark of Jim Boeheim’s team showed its teeth. The Orange kept Burke out of the paint and made it more difficult to pass the ball inside-out or swing it from side to side.
Meanwhile, Fair, who disappeared late in the first half, came back alive offensively. He scored 11 points the first 12 minutes of the second half and the Orange were within 48-45 with 7:14 to play.
But the Orange simply went dormant on offense. Fair missed a corner jumper and a jumper from inside the key. Syracuse went 4:44 without scoring and trailed, 53-45, with 3:14 to play.
On a night when points were hard to come by, it was too much for the Orange to overcome.
“Our defense was good enough,” Boeheim said. “Our offense was not good enough.”