ATLANTA — It wasn’t easy, but that doesn’t matter much right now.
The Wolverines are headed to Monday night, which in college basketball means only one thing — 40 minutes from the national title.
Playing a spectacular first half often isn’t enough, but the Wolverines punched back when shoved in the second half, holding off Syracuse in the national semifinal, 61-56, at the Georgia Dome on Saturday night.
That earns them a potential shining moment against Louisville with the championship — the one they’ve chanted about all year long — on the line.
And they did it despite a poor performance, possibly the season’s worst, from national player of the year Trey Burke, who had one field goal and a team shooting percentage under 40.
That said enough about their remarkable balance. With three players — Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III — barely squeezing into double figures — the Wolverines (31-7) picked each other up.
Syracuse (30-10) made a second half run, supported by their large fan base among the 75,350 in attendance and got within one point with 41 seconds remaining on a James Southerland three to make it 57-56 U-M.
But Mitch McGary made the big play, taking a charge with 19 seconds left to steal a possession.
That helped overcome their horrific free throw shooting, as the Wolverines missed their free throws down the stretch, going 4-of-9 in the final 1:10.
The clock kept ticking and the exhausted Wolverines kept trying to just collapse across the finish line.
It helped Michigan that Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams matched Burke, fouling out and scoring just two points.
The second half looked awfully familiar.
While an 11-point halftime lead looked nice, Syracuse came out of halftime energized.
Syracuse cut cut into the big lead thanks to a number of ill-advised shots and sloppy play by the Wolverines. As they gave away possessions on offense, they couldn’t handle Syrcause’s C.J. Fair on defense, with the Orange cut U-M’s lead to four points with 11 minutes remaining and kept pushing.
The first half showed how much the Wolverines have evolved this year over John Beilein’s first five teams.
Those were two-man tandems, each year leaning heavily on a pair of stars to carry them and if one was even slowed, the Wolverines had no answers.
On Saturday, Michigan’s depth was the difference in taking a 36-25 halftime lead.
The Wolverines’ bench scored 16 points, as every switch Beilein made worked perfectly.
First with Caris LeVert, who hit a pair of three-pointers. Then Jon Horford, who drove the lane for an and-one. Spike (Michael, according to the proper NCAA scoresheet) Albrecht with a pair of dead-eye threes and even Jordan Morgan got a free throw to get in the book.
All of that was necessary as U-M’s usual stars struggled — Hardaway Jr. and Burke combined to shoot 3-of-12 before the break — but they were steady.
Neither committed a turnover and, though Burke dropped his first points on a long-range three late in the half, he was calm.
Maybe that’s because he knows now he has Mitch McGary to carry the load. By the break, McGary had six points and seven rebounds, but his two most impressive plays came when he led a fast break, dishing to Hardaway, and on a no-look dish to Glenn Robinson III for a hoop.