The 1989 Michigan basketball team was loaded with talent, from All-American forward Glen Rice to talented sophomore Sean Higgins, to the low post duo of Terry Mills and Loy Vaught to their fine point guard Rumeal Robinson. But after a third-place finish in the Big Ten, they looked ready to go into the books as an underachieving disappointment.
When head coach Bill Fischer took the Arizona State job right before the 1989 NCAA Tournament, things got worse. Bo Schembecler, the legendary football coach who doubled as athletic director, told Fischer that his services would not be required for the tournament, and assistant coach Steve Fischer was named interim boss.
The Wolverines made the Sweet 16, although that was expected. The opponent in the regionals at Lexington would be North Carolina, the same team who eliminated them in this round in 1988. This time, it was different. Michigan was playing loose, with nothing to lose and their talent was coming to the fore.
Rice had a monster weekend at the regionals. The first-team All-American scored 34 in a 92-87 win over North Carolina. Then Rice knocked down 32 more in a 102-65 rout of Virginia. Fischer was taking his team to Seattle for the Final Four.
It was an all-Big Ten battle in the national semi-finals. Illinois won the Midwest bracket as the #1 seed and the Illini were expected to win it all. But one of the great games in Final Four history ensued. Rice scored 28 on 12-of-24 shooting, Illinois’ Kenny Battle knocked down 29 and it was tied 81-81, with Michigan having a chance at the final shot. The shot missed, but Higgins was there for the rebound and a quick put-back with two seconds left.
Now it was Monday night and the opponent was Seton Hall. The Pirates had been the 3-seed in the West, but their tough physical defense, led by P.J. Carleismo led them to dispatch Indiana and UNLV with surprising ease, and then an even more surprising blowout of Duke in the Final Four followed.
What followed on Monday night was a classic championship game, one that would go to overtime. Rice was brilliant again. This time he shot 12-for-25 and scored 31 points. Rice’s 184 points for the six NCAA games remains a tournament record. But Seton Hall guard John Morton scored 35, and Michigan trailed 79-78 in the closing minute of overtime.
Michigan got the defensive stop it needed at the ten-second mark and Robinson got the ball in transition. At the three-second mark he pivoted at the foul line and was in the midst of kicking the ball out for a last-second shot. But a foul was whistled on a hand-check. It wasn’t a bad call, although even Robinson himself said after the game that he wouldn’t have blown the whistle.
Whether you think it should have been called or not, Robinson still had to convert a one-and-one situation with the national championship on the line. The 64 percent foul shooter nailed both free throws.
With two consecutive last-second wins at the Final Four, the 1989 Michigan basketball team had completed its miraculous journey. Steve Fischer was an undefeated national champion just six games into his head coaching career.