March 18, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For much of the past decade, Michigan has faded to the background in its state come March as rival Michigan State routinely made deep NCAA tournament runs.
Now the undersized but plucky Wolverines have the spotlight to themselves thanks to a dominant second half that sent coach Bruce Pearl and Tennessee to an early offseason of uncertainty.
Behind Zack Novak's 14 points, 10 rebounds and two 3-pointers in a decisive spurt to start the second half, Michigan routed listless Tennessee 75-45 on Friday in the second round of the West Regional.
A day after Michigan State was ousted by UCLA, the eighth-seeded Wolverines (21-13) collected only their second NCAA win since 1998 to earn a date with top-seeded Duke or Hampton on Sunday.
"We're having so much fun we just want to keep it going," Novak said.
It showed in the last eight minutes, which served as a glorified pickup game for Michigan, complete with behind-the-back passes, thunderous dunks, high-fives and big smiles.
It didn't even matter that the Wolverines became the first team to win an NCAA tournament game without hitting a free throw (0-1). They made up for it by shooting 52 percent from the field and holding a 36-26 rebounding edge against the bigger Volunteers.
"I made the joke that we were boxing out everybody that came around us for the last four or five days, seeing that was a big part of their offense," coach John Beilein said. "We were more physical with our box outs today than we've probably been all year long."
And a dour Pearl, dressed in orange suspenders, could only stand with his hands behind his back for much of the closing moments in what perhaps was his final game at Tennessee.
"We obviously unraveled," he said.
It started with Tobias Harris.
After scoring 19 points and not missing a combined 13 shots from the field and foul line in the first half, the freshman forward went scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting as ninth-seeded Tennessee was outscored 42-16 after halftime.
"We just didn't play with heart out there," Harris said. "Michigan came out and made shots and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them. On the offensive end, we rushed too many shots. Basically, just quit."
The loss was the eighth in 12 games for the Volunteers (19-15) as Pearl's future is in question after he admitted lying to NCAA investigators.
Pearl has since served an eight-game suspension, forfeited $1.5 million in pay over the next four seasons and is working without a contract.
Athletic director Mike Hamilton, who had strongly supported his coach, wavered this week in a radio interview in which he said "the jury is still out" on whether Pearl will return.
It clouded the week in Tennessee's school-record sixth straight NCAA appearance.
"Of course it was a distraction off the court," guard Melvin Goins said. "As players we have to step up and take the responsibility on the court. We didn't come to play today."
Pearl, who Hamilton apologized to him for the timing of his remark, made a case for his return despite looming sanctions.
"We're going to be evaluated just like Mike Hamilton said, and I'm going to be able to go there and say we went to the NCAA tournament six times and three Sweet 16s and an Elite 8," Pearl said. "
"We made some mistakes. We're going to try to be accountable for those mistakes, but my goal and desire is to be the basketball coach at Tennessee next year and for a long time."
Tennessee's up-and-down season came apart with a dizzying stretch of turnovers and mental errors to start the second half.
The Volunteers committed four turnovers sandwiched between Scotty Hopson's airball 3-point attempt in Michigan's 16-0 run. Two timeouts by Pearl did little to stop the onslaught as Michigan was able to deny Harris the ball with a tight zone and scored with ease on drives to the hoop at the other end.
"They started to doubling down on the post. I tried to what I can from there, kick out and get other guys shots and plays," said Harris, who added that turning pro would be "something I'm going to have to consider."
Stu Douglass, Matt Vogrich and Tim Hardaway Jr. all scored 11 points for Michigan, which forced 18 turnovers and is relishing playing in March and perhaps dueling with Duke again.
"It was a great rivalry, great history," Douglass said, "and it's a new day."