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March 30, 2013

Elite in every way

Fifth-year senior Corey Person cried in the postgame, just like he did in last year's second round NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio - this time, though, they were tears of joy. There were hugs, laughs, jokes and, whether they'd admit it or not, a 'did that just happen?' look on many faces following Michigan's improbable, 87-85 overtime win over Kansas.

And for the first time since 1994, Michigan basketball is elite again, set to meet Florida Sunday (2:20 p.m.) for the right to go the Final Four.

Box Score

Ask those closest to the program - whether it's the policeman who travels with the team, the counselors who accompany them waiting outside the locker room - and they'd say it couldn't happen to a better group of people. Nobody does it cleaner than head coach John Beilein, or with more class, and his staff is in full step.

There were some puzzled looks last week when Beilein asked his kids to stay in their rooms following a blowout win over VCU, but they complied, redshirt junior big man Jordan Morgan said, out of respect for their coach.

They followed his lead again when he told them they weren't out of it, even down 14 with six minutes remaining, and fought through exhaustion to scrap for loose balls, defended like they hadn't all game to get to overtime.

Once they climbed back even following sophomore point guard Trey Burke's 28-foot bomb that sent it to overtime, they weren't going to let it go. They finally guarded with a purpose, Kansas head coach Bill Self said in the postgame, and it was evident while it was happening he knew it was slipping away.

"Give Michigan credit," Self said. "They basically had to have a lot of things go right late - they made all the plays, and it didn't seem like we made very many. And of course their player of the year stepped up and was unbelievable late and made some tough plays.

"Still we were up 12, but Trey and their players, they made great plays. They've got a terrific team and are well coached. They didn't give up. All we had to do was make one play, and we just didn't do it."

For the better part of 30 minutes, the Big Ten Player of the Year looked somewhat ordinary. His shot was off. He suffered through some uncharacteristic turnovers, and he looked visibly frustrated.

But he also knew his supporting cast had his back. When he drove, freshman big man Mitch McGary was waiting, taking it right at Kansas big man Jeff Withey - the same Jeff Withey who had vowed to dominate McGary, having called him 'smaller than I thought,' in the paint.

The tale of the tape - McGary 25 points and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes, Withey 12 and 8 in 39. Assistant Coach Bacari Alexander proved prophetic Friday when he said his 250-pound big men could handle the lanky Jayhawk in the paint with their bulk.

"He's more of a leverage big, and I was trying to play behind him in the post and make him score over me. I am about 6‑10 and he thought I was shorter than that, I heard," he said with a grin. "He did a pretty good job, got some buckets, but that's basketball."

The dehydrated big man was looking for water in the postgame locker room when informed Withey said, 'little fellas like McGary should probably drink more milk.'

"Did he really say that?" he said, his smile immediately giving way to a frown.

His grin came back when informed no, he hadn't really.

"Don't do that to me!" he said.

Back-up senior guard Matt Vogrich got in on the fun with some ribbing of his own.

"Big Mitch, I'm going to give you a call when the Bulls take you this year!" he hollered. "I'm going to want some tickets!"

McGary, though, didn't seem like he was in any hurry to do anything but celebrate with a group of teammates one teammate called 'a band of brothers.' Morgan, who contributed five key minutes (two points and three rebounds) made his way to the locker room before stopping to greet many of them on their way in. He joined arm in arm with frosh Caris LeVert, veterans Corey Person and Eso Akunne, who had his jersey pulled over his face to dry his tears.

They joined their teammates to a round of hoots and hollers that could be heard from the hallway, coming from a group who realized they'd just accomplished something special.

Something elite.

"[Athletic Director] David Brandon just came over and said, 'you realize what just happened here?'" freshman Glenn Robinson III, who made several critical plays down the stretch, recalled. "This doesn't happen every day."

Not at Michigan since 1994, when four of the Fab Five were still playing.

About the same time some of the younger Wolverines were born.

Stunned Kansas fans gathered around a TV monitor on their way out of the building to watch Burke's 28-footer that sent it to overtime at 76 one more time, perhaps just making sure it wasn't a dream before parting with their Sunday tickets.

"That was sick," one acknowledged, shaking his head.

To Burke, though, it was all in a day's work.

"We fought so hard to come back, it really didn't matter how far the shot was," Burke said. "It was either all or nothing. The season flashed before our eyes those last two or three minutes. I had a lot of faith in that shot, and it went in.

"Once it went in, there were four seconds left still and we still needed another defensive stop. Like Tim [Hardaway] said, God is really good. He's gotten us to this point, and we still have a lot of work to do, but we're one step closer."

And as McGary and others said in the postgame locker room, when you're having this much fun, why stop now? Atlanta beckons, and perhaps a date with destiny.

For anyone who might have doubted it, Michigan basketball is back.



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