MINNEAPOLIS -- Though its fabled freshman class has played a large part in Michigan's success this season, an overlooked group of upperclassmen has played as big a part in the Wolverines' march to the Final Four.
At last week's Southeast Regional in Lexington, Ky., senior center Eric Riley saved Michigan in its semifinal victory over Oklahoma State. Last night at the Metrodome, junior James Voskuil helped put the Wolverines into the NCAA championship game. But not before giving them an anxious moment.
Coming in for erratic Ray Jackson midway through the second half, Voskuil put Michigan into the lead for good with a key three-point play, made a three-point shot and hit a free throw to help the Wolverines overcome a seven-point deficit and beat Cincinnati, 76-72, in the first semifinal game.
"James came in and perked us up," said Michigan coach Steve Fisher. "He hit some big shots and did a great job on [Herb] Jones."
Voskuil, who started 14 times in each of the past two seasons, also gave the Wolverines a major scare. With Michigan leading 76-69, Voskuil fouled Nick Van Exel as the Bearcats guard took a three-point shot with 14.1 seconds left. The ball banked in, cutting the lead to four.
Van Exel, who scored 21 to lead Cincinnati (29-5), missed the free throw, but the Bearcats controlled the rebound. They then missed three straight three-point shots before time, and the Bearcats' dream of playing for the national championship, expired.
"I am very proud of the effort and the character that our guys have shown all year. We just didn't get it done on the boards today," said Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, whose smallish Bearcats were out-rebounded, 46-30, by Michigan. "They beat us to death on the boards."
The victory put the Wolverines into the final tomorrow night against Duke. It will be Michigan's second appearance in the championship since the Wolverines won the title in 1989, when Fisher was their interim coach.
Voskuil's three-point shot gave Michigan a 61-58 lead with 5:41 to play and, after Anthony Buford was blocked inside by a pack of Wolverines, Webber dunked for a five-point lead. Cincinnati, which had led 56-54 before it went more than 4 1/2 minutes between baskets, called timeout.
"It was a big basket when Voskuil hit the three," said Buford, who finished with 18 points. "We knew he was a good shooter, but we didn't expect him to step up and hit the three at that moment."
While Voskuil stepped up in the final 10 minutes after scoring three in Michigan's first four NCAA tournament games, the "Fab Five" played their part. Freshman guard Jimmy King scored 17 and Webber had 16 points and 11 rebounds. Jalen Rose had 13, including some big free throws down the stretch.
The Wolverines got off to a shaky start, particularly Rose. Fisher had to go to senior Michael Talley, another former starting point, to settle down Michigan (25-8) and slow down the Bearcats, who reversed an early seven-point deficit to lead 41-34 late in the first half. Cincinnati led at halftime, 41-38.
Asked about his team's 12 first-half turnovers, Fisher said, "It was enough to pull your hair out."
Michigan wasn't much more composed in the early stages of the second half, as Cincinnati built its lead to 50-43 on two of three free throws by Van Exel (he was fouled on a three-point shot) with 15:09 left in the game.
But the Bearcats' half-court offense began to unravel, and their vaunted traps became less effective. After tying the game at 54 and then at 56, the Wolverines took the lead on a layup by freshman forward Juwan Howard with 7:06 to play.
"When you don't score, you can't press," said Huggins, whose team scored seven in a stretch of 17 possessions in the second half. "We did not get the clock stopped enough to get into pressing situations."
After Cincinnati tied it briefly on a pair of free throws by Buford, Voskuil's three-point play with 5:41 to play gave Michigan the lead for good. It would eventually grow to 65-58 before three-pointers by Jones and Buford gave the Bearcats some hope.
But reminiscent of last week's victories in Lexington, the Wolverines made some big plays after nearly giving their lead away toward the end. Last week, it was Riley, subbing for foul-marred Webber. Last night it was Voskuil, whose three-point shot with 2:55 seemingly iced the game.
"Voskuil was an uplift," said Riley.
Voskuil and everyone else in the Michigan locker room could laugh about the mistake -- a freshman mistake made by a junior -- of fouling Van Exel on the three-point play. They could look forward to tomorrow's final and having an opportunity to become the first freshman-dominated team to win the NCAA title.
"We've been saying all along we wanted to win the national championship," said King. "We made it to the Final Four, and now we've made it to the championship."
Thanks largely to an overlooked upperclassman.