LOS ANGELES — A Michigan program long known for its breathtaking offense relied on a very different formula to reach the Final Four this year.
Instead of unselfish passing and lethal 3-point shooting, the Wolverines rode their fierce-yet-disciplined defense all the way to San Antonio.
In a gritty, physical West Regional final rife with bruises and floor burns, third-seeded Michigan outlasted ninth-seeded Florida State 58-54 on Saturday night. The Wolverines forced 14 turnovers in the first half and then held the Seminoles to 23.3 percent shooting after halftime, delighting a Staples Center crowd bathed 90 percent in maize and blue.
Michigan’s defense was its best in the final minute after Florida State trimmed a late 10-point deficit to three. The Wolverines harassed the Seminoles into five straight missed 3-pointers to clinch their eighth Final Four appearance in program history.
“I’ve never seen a team work so hard and be so connected, even when things did not go right on the offensive end,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They were exceptional on defense.”
That Michigan is back in the Final Four for the second time in the John Beilein era is a mild surprise considering the modest expectations for the program entering the season. The Wolverines started the season buried in the other’s receiving votes section of the AP Top 25 after losing three of their four leading scorers from last year’s 26-win Sweet 16 team.
Whereas most of Beilein’s best Michigan teams have won by outscoring their opponents, defense has been the hallmark of this year’s Wolverines. They’re fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to the influence of new assistant coach Luke Yaklich, an infusion of toughness and grit from point guard Zavier Simpson and a renewed commitment at that end of the floor from some of their veteran starters.
What Michigan did especially well Saturday was take away Florida State’s transition game and keep the Seminoles off the offensive glass. Phil Cofer had 16 points and PJ Savoy had 12, but no other Florida State player managed double figures.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “We each had to weather the storm and get stops when we needed it, and that’s what I think we did.”
The turning point in the game arrived with seven minutes remaining when Florida State’s Trent Forrest attacked off the dribble in transition and drew a fourth foul on Michigan’s leading scorer and top big man Moritz Wagner. The Seminoles had a golden opportunity to erase a seven-point deficit, but the Wolverines instead extended their lead while Wagner sat.
Charles Matthews had a turnaround jumper in the lane. Simpson contributed a driving layup. By the time Duncan Robinson turned toward the Michigan bench and roared after draining a 3-pointer with less than three minutes to go, the Wolverines led by 10 and Wagner was still waiting at the scorer’s table to check back in.
It seemed all but over at that point, but never-say-die Florida State unfurled one last run aided by a slew of late missed Michigan free throws. Savoy got a heavily contested look at a game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute, but that bounced off the back rim.
Seconds later, Robinson sealed the win for Michigan by knocking down a pair of free throws.
The first half of Saturday’s game was a defensive clinic as both offenses seldom generated an uncontested look.
Florida State’s waves of swarming length and athleticism pressured Michigan on the perimeter, rotated quickly to shooters and dared the Wolverines to challenge the rim protectors in the paint off the dribble. Ike Obiagu had three of Florida State’s five first-half blocks and the Seminoles held Michigan to 7-for-21 shooting from the field.
You’d think Florida State would have at least held a halftime lead given those stats, but the Seminoles fared no better at the other end. They turned the ball over 14 times in the first half against Michigan’s ball pressure and did not generate a single fast-break point.
Charles Matthews helped Michigan gain some separation early in the second half with a driving layup and a 3-pointer off a deft shot fake. That keyed an 11-0 surge that ended with Zavier Simpson turning a Mfiondu Kabengele miss into an outlet pass to a cherrypicking Duncan Robinson for a transition layup.
As the Staples Center crowd roared in approval and Michigan players jumped up and down in the huddle, Beilein motioned for the Wolverines to calm down because a 10-point lead was hardly insurmountable.
Beilein was right, of course. This was a Florida State team that had already beaten three better-seeded teams to get to the Elite Eight.
The Seminoles scrapped until the final buzzer to pull off one more upset, but thanks to its vastly improved defense, Michigan held on.