Michigan edged Syracuse, 68-65, in a game that came down to a wild final sequence. Here are Five Key Plays from the Wolverines’ big non-conference win.
1) Christmas paces Orange in the first half
Michigan had no answer for Rakeem Christmas one-on-one, and Syracuse took advantage of that often in the first half. After making his first bucket of the night on an uncontested dunk — following a near-turnover, Mark Donnal had stepped away to cover Chris McCullough — Christmas had no issues backing down Ricky Doyle.
Christmas was sidelined for part of the first half with two fouls, but Jim Boeheim had no option other than to put Christmas back in the game and throw the ball down to him.
Later in the first half, Christmas boxed out both Caris LeVert and Doyle for an offensive rebound and putback, drawing the second foul of the half from Michigan’s big man. When Mark Donnal also picked up his second foul less than a minute later, Syracuse had a significant mismatch with Christmas over Max Bielfeldt, so they fed him repeatedly until halftime.
Christmas finished the first half with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, helping the Orange to a 31-29 halftime lead. Michigan was able to make some adjustments and while it was never able to slow Christmas, it was able to throw enough bodies at him to force the 6-foot-9 senior into several turnovers.
2) Kameron Chatman helps break down zone
Were it not for Kameron Chatman, Michigan coach John Beilein said Tuesday “would’ve been about an eight-point, 10-point game” at the half.
Against Syracuse in the Final Four, the Wolverines fed Mitch McGary at the free throw line — the weak spot of the 2-3 zone — to break down the Orange. Chatman filled that role Tuesday. He got Michigan’s first points of the day on a turnaround jumper there after a nice feed from LeVert, and he assisted on the team’s next bucket by getting penetration and forcing Trevor Cooney to leave Zak Irvin open for a three.
Chatman hit another turnaround jumper at the 10-minute mark and finished with four points and seven rebounds at halftime.
He got the first points out of halftime by attacking the basket from that weak spot and hitting a difficult jumper over Christmas, and he polished off a solid night with a critical open three created by a Doyle ball screen and a dish from LeVert.
Chatman had some less flattering moments in the game as well, but his production was critical for a Michigan team that has been looking (and now appears to have found) contributors outside of its ‘big three’.
3) Spike Albrecht ignites Michigan in the second half
On a night in which Derrick Walton struggled, Spike Albrecht made all the big plays. You’ve probably already seen the behind-the-back dish to Doyle, made possible by Albrecht’s ability to deliver passes into the 2-3 zone and cut through it himself with the help of a ball screen. The pass itself was just icing on the cake.
Albrecht sliced through the zone again at the five-minute mark to find Irvin open for three, made sharp perimeter passes like the one at the seven-minute mark for a LeVert three, and then used a Chatman ball screen to collapse the zone so he could deliver a no-look bounce pass to Doyle for a slam.
When Michigan couldn’t penetrate the zone, Albrecht shot over it, connecting on a deep trey four minutes into the half and again five minutes later.
Syracuse’s zone defense is best known for rendering small guards almost useless, but Albrecht was unfazed.
“Spike is really good at attacking zones,” John Beilein said after the win. “He sees behind the zone, he makes that entry pass into the high-post area better than anybody. That’s why we had him out there so much.”
4) Albrecht knocks down decisive three
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim knows teams generally become more comfortable against his zone as the game progresses. The Wolverines certainly did.
Out of a timeout with a minute to go, Michigan ran a play designed to either get the ball to the high post or kick out for an open three. Doyle set the screen for Walton, who slashed into the middle of the zone. At that point, every Syracuse defender collapsed around Walton.
Spike Albrecht was left with 10 feet of separation from the nearest defender and was calling for the ball. Walton hit Albrecht at the top of the key, and the junior didn’t hesitate as he buried the deep three.
“Derrick did a great job getting into the paint and then drawing the defense in,” Albrecht said. “I don’t know how he found me.”
Michigan led the rest of the way.
5) Syracuse throws the game away
Both Walton and LeVert missed the front end of important one-and-ones with just seconds remaining, but on both occasions, Syracuse gave the ball right back. The first time, after Walton’s shot was short, McCullough’s outlet pass sailed out of bounds. Then, when LeVert’s free throw was too strong, Kaleb Joseph lost his handle on the ball for another turnover.
“It’s just something that, you know, you can’t do that and win games,” Boeheim said. “Two freshmen. Whatever.
“They’re painful lessons that you have to learn sometimes.”
LeVert hit both his foul shots with 4.5 seconds left, and Joseph’s last-second three-pointer missed everything to finally seal Michigan’s win.