INDIANAPOLIS – Cuonzo Martin wouldn't bite.
The offensive foul on Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes that -- perhaps -- changed the outcome of Friday night's Sweet 16 loss to Michigan. Was it a good call or bad?
Martin stared into the Lucas Oil Stadium limelight and did the smart thing. The Volunteers coach said he'd have to watch the tape when Stokes and the Wolverines' Jordan Morgan collided with six seconds left in a one-point game. He kept it simple and terse.
“I thought (Stokes) made a good move. The official called a charge.”
And then, a few moments later.
“We got the ball where we wanted. Just didn't get the result…
“They made a call.”
That they did.
So the Wolverines (28-8) advanced with a 73-71 victory. Tennessee (24-13) was left to wonder about what might have been after turning a 15-point rout into a nail biter.
“We played way better defense,” senior guard Jordan McRae said about the rally. “Regardless of the outcome, we played hard. It was a huge comeback, but the feeling we have right now, you can't be happy after that.”
Michigan has played 11 games decided by four points or less, and won nine of them.
“We've played so many of these games,” guard Nik Stauskas said, “that we've gotten comfortable in these situations. We try not to panic too much.”
The Wolverines won with balance. Four players scored in double figures -- led by Morgan's 15 points -- and two more had nine.
Tennessee was more top heavy, with McRae leading with 24 and Richardson adding 19.
Martin coached like he once played as a Purdue Boilermaker. Adversity came and the Volunteers battled back. They gradually squeezed off Michigan's vaunted shooting. They forced the normally poised Wolverines to blink under pressure, but not crack.
In the end, Michigan was tough enough.
“Certainly there was a lot of drama at the end,” coach John Beilein said, “but we've had a lot of that this year. A win is a win.”
Michigan's high-efficiency offense staggered Tennessee's get-physical defense in a dominant first half. The Wolverines were 7-for-9 from three-point range from four different players. They shot 61.5 percent from the field, had a 14-11 rebound edge (even though that was the Vols' forte) and were 6-for-6 from the line.
Tennessee countered with a lot of Richardson. He was 6-for-8 for 13 points to give the Vols a second-half chance.
As it turned out, it was almost enough.
“We felt we could drive the ball, attack the lane, make plays,” Martin said. “We came back by just being assertive, taking the scouting report to the floor. It worked for us.”
Tennessee prepared for Michigan's three-point shooting prowess, then got rocked when the Wolverines hit their first three beyond the arc to take a 15-7 lead.
The Volunteers scrambled to contain. The Wolverines sprinted to sustain. When Stauskas hit his second three-pointer of the half, making Michigan 6-for-8 beyond the arc, it had a 34-25 lead. By halftime, it was 46-34.
Six minutes into the second half and the lead was 13. Another two minutes and it was 15.
Tennessee surged within seven, then five, then three, then one.
Then Stokes was called for a charge against Morgan.
“I don't think I fouled him,” he said. “But it was a smart play for him to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it.”
Added Morgan: “They set a screen for him to come open, so I knew the play was going to be for him. I know he likes to play bully ball. I was just there. It's something I do. I take charges.”
And there the comeback ended. Michigan advanced to the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
Tennessee was left to savor the 8-1 stretch that brought it NCAA tourney opportunity, three years after Martin was brought in to clean up the NCAA-sanctioned end of Bruce Pearl's coaching run.
“What a great job he's done with that team,” Beilein said. “They had a sensational year. He's done a great job developing the culture of the program.”