Eli Brooks returned for one final college season with the goal of helping Michigan reach the Final Four.
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Defying expectations, the Wolverines are halfway there.
Brooks scored seven of his 23 points in the final 3½ minutes and the 11th-seeded Wolverines booked the most surprising of their five straight v appearances, beating third-seeded Tennessee 78-68 on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m just trying to live in the moment right now and cherish the time we have with the people in my life right now at Michigan and enjoy the process of going through this tournament again and having that chance of getting our last goal,” said Brooks, a fifth-year senior.
Michigan’s five straight trips to the regional semifinals is the second-longest streak in the nation behind Gonzaga’s. The Bulldogs beat Memphis on Sunday night to make their seventh consecutive Sweet 16.
It wasn’t clear late in the season whether the Wolverines would be in the tournament, much less have a chance for a deep run.
Hardly a conventional Cinderella given its resources and pedigree, Michigan (19-14) has the worst record of any team left in the field and did the bare minimum to secure an at-large berth. The Wolverines hadn’t won two straight games since mid-February.
Still, coach Juwan Howard’s squad has plenty of talent and elevated its play down the stretch against the Southeastern Conference champion Vols, who led by six points with 8 1/2 minutes left before going cold. Howard himself had to learn some lessons about composure when he was suspended for five games late in the season for hitting a Wisconsin assistant during a postgame handshake line.
Next up for the Wolverines is either second-seeded Villanova or longtime rival Ohio State, the No. 7 seed, on Thursday in the South Region semifinals at San Antonio, Texas.
“Making it to the Sweet 16 is, as literal as it is, sweet because nobody believed in us,” said sophomore big man Hunter Dickinson, who led Michigan with 27 points and 11 rebounds. “Everybody thought we shouldn’t be in the tournament and now people that were hating on us are going home and about to watch us next week.”
Brooks broke Tennessee’s heart with his late, looping, improvised hook shot.
“He’s everything when it comes to being a Michigan man, what he’s done on the floor, what he’s done off the floor, with his development, growing as a man, being able to adjust to different cultures,” Howard said. “It’s going to be tough to replace a guy like that. He’s irreplaceable.”
Kennedy Chandler had 19 points and Josiah-Jordan James had 13 for Tennessee (27-8), which had a seven-game winning streak snapped. Two days after shooting a school tourney record 60% from the field, the Vols shot 41.8% and came up short again in the postseason. Tennessee lost to Oregon State in the first round last year, also at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
This year, the arena was filled to the rafters with an orange hue and Vols fans repeatedly belted out the lyrics to “Rocky Top” during timeouts — a stark contrast from 2021 when attendance was limited to about 25% of capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions. The energy made a difference.
“We had bigger expectations, but credit to Michigan — they played better basketball for 40 minutes,” James said. “It definitely hurts. It’s not a good feeling being up here right now on the losing end.”READ MORE: AAA Offers 'Tow To Go' Program During Memorial Day Weekend
Michigan controlled most of the first half until the Vols used a late 13-4 run to take a 37-32 halftime lead. Tennessee played with the lead for most of the second half until Michigan went on a 14-5 run.
The Wolverines twice tied the score on tip-ins from Terrance Williams II. And then Brooks swung the game.
His three-point play with 3:21 to go made it 65-62. Chandler’s jumper cut the deficit to 66-64, but James missed a 3-pointer and Brooks answered with his old-school hook before Michigan closed it out at the free-throw line.
Michigan: The Wolverines played better than their seeding in Indianapolis, beating Colorado State with a backup point guard before topping the SEC champs. Now, Howard has his team thinking about adding a national championship banner to Crisler Arena.
Tennessee: Coach Rick Barnes’ team appeared to be peaking before the tournament, which will make this loss difficult to accept.
Michigan starting point guard DeVante’ Jones, who missed Thursday’s first-round game, returned Saturday only to depart again after a collision with teammate Moussa Diabate.
Michigan: Brooks had five assists and Dickinson had four. Dickinson also drew eight fouls. … Diabate finished with 13 points and six rebounds. … Jones played 11 1/2 minutes. … Michigan had 15 turnovers, compared with seven for Tennessee.
Tennessee: Chandler had nine assists and four rebounds. … Uros Plavisc scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds. … Tennessee was 2 of 18 on 3-pointers and was outscored 13-7 on second-chance points.
HE SAID IT
“It’s very frustrating. Whether you lose on the first day, the second day, like we did today, or you lose in the semifinals, it’s the same feeling,” Barnes said. “I’ve been frustrated a lot in my career, but I’m also very thankful that I’ve been able to be here.”
Michigan will try to win its third game in a row for the first time since late January.
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