INDIANAPOLIS — No. 8 Michigan ended 15 years of Big Ten Tournament frustration Saturday.
There’s still some work to do before it can really celebrate.
After blowing a 12-point second-half lead against its most bitter rival, Michigan closed the game with a 7-1 run and survived a potential tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds for its first tourney win over No. 24 Ohio State, 72-69.
“We weren’t thinking about winning the Big Ten Conference championship, the tournament,” Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas said. “We were thinking about just beating Ohio State. This is a rivalry game.”
For the Big Ten regular-season champs, it was a big moment.
Michigan (25-7) hadn’t won a semifinal game since 1998, when it won the inaugural tourney title only to vacate it because of NCAA rules violations. Since then, the Wolverines hadn’t even won two straight games in the league tourney and had lost all six times it played the dreaded Buckeyes in Indianapolis or Chicago.
Not this time.
The top-seeded Wolverines started the game with an offensive flurry and ended it with a stout defensive stretch that ended with Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft losing control of the ball as he tried a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime. Instead, the Wolverines came up with the loose ball to eliminate the conference’s defending tourney champion.
Stauskas finished with 18 points. Ohio native Caris LeVert had 17 points and seven rebounds and Glenn Robinson III wound up with 11 points, including two free throws that gave Michigan the lead for good with 2:55 to play.
The Wolverines won their seventh straight in large part because they were 12-of-23 on 3-pointers against the Big Ten’s top-rated 3-point defense and didn’t allow a basket over the final four minutes.
The only thing sweeter than beating the Buckeyes would be winning today’s title game against No. 22 Michigan State. The Wolverines won both games against the third-seeded Spartans this season. Michigan State advanced with an 85-73 win over second-seeded Wisconsin in the second semifinal.
“Those are the three best defensive teams in our league. They’re just really difficult to score points on,” coach John Beilein said, referring to the Badgers, Buckeyes and Spartans.
But getting to the final wasn’t easy, either.
Michigan blew a 13-point lead in Friday’s quarterfinal victory, surviving a scare from ninth-seeded Illinois when Jordan Morgan’s layup rolled in with 7.9 seconds to go and Illinois guard Tracy Abrams missed a driving layup at the buzzer.
It was more of the same Saturday. Michigan led by as much as 16 in the first half and 12 in the second and still needed another late miscue to seal the win.
Ohio State (25-9) was led by LaQuinton Ross with 19 points and Shannon Scott with 18, nearly pulling off a second stunning comeback in two days. After digging out of an 18-point deficit to beat Nebraska in Friday’s quarterfinals, the Buckeyes wound up losing for only the third time in 10 games.
“I feel like as a team when our head’s underwater, we start fighting more,” Scott said. “We started doing that again today.”
Ohio State, which struggled to open both halves, just couldn’t finish this one off.
Michigan opened the game with three straight threes and led 15-2 after its opening flurry. The Buckeyes clawed back late in the half, getting within 41-37.
But Ohio State gave up three more threes to open the second half, allowing the Spartans to push the lead to 54-42 with 16:02 left.
Again the Buckeyes rallied, using a 10-2 spurt that ended with Sam Thompson’s alley-oop dunk, giving Ohio State its first lead at 61-60.
That’s when last year’s national runner-up buckled down defensively.
Michigan cut the Ohio State lead to 68-67 on an 18-foot jumper from Stauskas and regained the lead when Robinson made the two free throws.
The Buckeyes couldn’t get anything to go over the final four minutes, missing five straight shots and three of four free throws before Craft said the ball slipped out of his hands at the end.
“I feel so fortunate right now,” Beilein said. “You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they’ve ended just like this and the ball keeps bouncing our way. You only can have that type of luck if you have guys like these guys sitting next to me. They make enough smart plays to keep you in the game, and some games the ball will just bounce your way.”