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Michigan solves ­Syracuse’s zone to reach title game

Michigan v Syracuse

Michigan v Syracuse

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Updated: May 8, 2013 7:04AM

ATLANTA — Familiarity breeds . . . knowledge.

John Beilein and Jim Boeheim go way back. When Beilein was coaching at LeMoyne, a Division II school in Syracuse, Boeheim helped him move up to the Canisius job. Then Boeheim helped Beilein land the West Virginia job.

So what does Beilein do to repay Boeheim? He applies his knowledge of the 2-3 zone, which has been given Superman-like powers in this tournament, to mix up some Kryptonite.

Voila! Michigan defeated Syracuse 61-56 on Saturday to advance to the national championship game Monday against Louisville. The Wolverines will be going after their first national championship since 1989, when they beat Seton Hall.

Of course, it helped that Beilein has assembled a roster capable of zone-busting.

Michigan’s trio of freshman pals from northwest Indiana all came up big. Mitch McGary (10 points, 12
rebounds, six assists) was a monster in the middle. Glenn Robinson III (10 points, six rebounds) was very active. And Spike Albrecht (six points, 2-for-2 on three-pointers) buried two good looks late in the first half.

‘‘We studied so many of their games,’’ Beilein said. ‘‘They have a great coaching staff. But we knew that [McGary’s ability inside] was an area we might be able to exploit if we could pass out of there. We did so many passing drills this week with Mitch. He did a great job in the first half. Six assists is a big number for him.’’

Even with Michigan’s fast start, it went down to the wire against refuse-to-lose Syracuse. The Orange pulled to 57-56 with 40 seconds left on a three-pointer by James

The Wolverines (31-7) dodged a bullet, though, when Syracuse guard Brandon Triche was whistled for charging with 19 seconds left. Jordan Morgan drew the foul, Triche’s fifth, with Michigan leading 58-56. The Orange’s other starting guard, Michael Carter-Williams, had fouled out with 1:14 left after a subpar game in which he managed only two points on 1-for-6 shooting.

Beilein couldn’t say enough about the way the Wolverines grew up.

‘‘I’m so proud of them, given the great first half they played,’’ he said. ‘‘Then hanging on in the second half was an incredible show of character and unity and all the things we preach. It’s a great moment for them and our university.’’

Tim Hardaway Jr. (13 points, five rebounds, five assists) overcame a 4-for-16 shooting night to lead Michigan in scoring.

When the Wolverines led 36-25 at the half, they nearly had doubled what Syracuse had allowed in the first halves of its first four NCAA tournament games combined. The Orange’s first four opponents managed a total of 79 points in the first half, an average of 19.7.

One of the explanations when Syracuse smothered Indiana in the Sweet 16 was that the Hoosiers’ guards weren’t big enough to shoot over the zone. But the 5-11 Albrecht made hash of that theory.

Another explanation was that Cody Zeller, who was supposed to be an elite big man, wasn’t up to the challenge. So how did McGary, admittedly a rapidly improving freshman, do what Zeller didn’t do? The answer is that Beilein gave him a good road map to navigating the Orange’s zone.

Michigan’s second-half resilience spared the Big Ten chatter about the Big East being the best conference in the country. If Syracuse had played Louisville in the final, that would have opened up that conversation.

Instead, college basketball will have a fitting end to a raucous season. It will be Big East against Big Ten, the two leagues that have been the best all season.

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