ARLINGTON, Texas — Trey Burke and Michigan had the perfect response for everyone who said they were too young or not tough enough to make it all the way to Atlanta.
The championship trophy for the South Region is headed back to Ann Arbor, while another fabulous group of young Wolverines is going to the Final Four.
Led by Burke and sharp-shooting guard Nik Stauskas, one of three freshmen starters, Michigan controlled Florida from start to finish in a 79-59 win Sunday.
“It means the world — 20 years has passed and we haven’t been on that stage yet,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., the junior elder statesman in the starting lineup.
The last time Michigan made it this far was the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, what until now had been considered the program’s glory years.
Might be time to start rethinking that.
Once they got ahead Sunday, the Wolverines (30-7) maintained a double-digit lead against the experienced Gators (29-8), who won the regular-season title in the Southeastern Conference, but lost in a regional final for the third straight year.
“We’ve almost become numb to it now. Been here before,” Gators junior center Patric Young said. “I just really wish we were out there cutting the nets down.”
Stauskas scored 22 points while making all six of his 3-pointers. Burke, the South Region’s most outstanding player, scored 15 points, and 6-foot-10 freshman Mitch McGary had 11 points and nine rebounds.
When the game ended, Burke and several of his teammates went to the opposite side of the court toward Michigan fans behind press row with fingers raised. Fans were chanting, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!”
And great to be young.
“Seeing it all come together, I don’t what to say,” sixth-year Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “I’m a little bit speechless.”
Michigan hadn’t reached the Final Four since consecutive finals appearances in 1992 and 1993, the freshman and sophomore seasons of the Fab Five — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King.
Webber was gone before that team’s 1994 regional final loss to Arkansas played in the now-demolished Reunion Arena in Dallas, and Howard followed him to the NBA after that.
With four wins in this NCAA tourney, the Wolverines already have more tournament victories than their total from the end of the Fab Five era to this season. They had one win in 1998, and then didn’t even make the field again until 2009.
Burke is from Columbus, Ohio, and grew up an Ohio State football fan while rooting for Duke basketball. The sophomore still knew of the Wolverines’ history and isn’t surprised to be back in the Final Four again so quickly after arriving in Ann Arbor.
“I said it in the summer and the coaches kind of got on me saying we can be national championship contenders. But that was coming from my heart,” said Burke, surrounded by the sons of three former NBA players. “I knew once we put the talent with the toughness and execution, then I knew this team could be special. We’re coming together at the right time.”
Despite being the only team to make regional finals each of the last three seasons, the Gators haven’t been to the Final Four since winning consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007 for coach Billy Donovan.
Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy, the four-year seniors who came in not long after those titles, will leave without one of their own. They were part of the only Gators class to win consecutive outright SEC regular-season championships, but came up short in the biggest games.
Florida is the first team to make it to three consecutive regional finals without winning at least one of them, according to STATS LLC. Wyoming lost in the round of eight from 1947-49, but that stretch ended two years before the NCAA tournament expanded to more than eight teams.
“I feel more upset for Boynton, (Mike) Rosario and Murphy, who don’t get a chance and have come so close,” Donovan said. “This one, we didn’t play well enough or deserve to win.”
Boynton and Will Yeguete had 13 points apiece for the Gators.
The Gators were able to recover from an early deficit against Florida Gulf Coast for a 62-50 win Friday night on the raised stage at Cowboys Stadium.
It was another story facing Big Blue.
After McGary started the scoring with a layup, Stauskas made a behind-the-back pass to McGary for a slam before making his first 3-pointer less than a half-minute after that.
Burke passed to McGary for a layup before driving for one of his own. McGary’s jumper made it 13-0 only 3:05 into the game.
Stauskas, who was 2 of 12 from 3-point range the first three games of this NCAA tourney, was on target against the Gators.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Canada put the Wolverines up by 24 points with 4:08 left in the first half after two consecutive 3s from the left corner in a span of 27 seconds.
Like he did on all of his makes, Stauskas came back down the court with a smile on his face, sharing the moment with the Wolverines fans who made the trip to North Texas.
“I can’t even explain the feeling. I was having so much fun,” Stauskas said. “I’ve been working and dreaming my whole life about something like this. To finally have it, I have a smile on my face and I’m enjoying the moment.”
Florida missed its first seven shots before Yeguete made a layup more than 3½ minutes into the game.
It was a rough finale for Murphy, who twice thought he had easy baskets in front of him only to have the shots blocked. Murphy had eight rebounds, but finished 0-of-11 shooting and was scoreless for the first time this season.
Murphy was clearly devastated, staring at the floor with slumped shoulder in the locker room after the game.
“Just missed shots,” Murphy said, barely loud enough to be heard, and answering in short spurts. “Our defense was bad.”
Even with an 11-2 run late in the first half punctuated by Boynton’s 3-pointer, the Gators were still down by 15 with a minute to go in the first half.
But the Wolverines were able to score even after it appeared that the half had ended; Burke was already heading off the court pumping his right arm toward the Michigan fans.
Stauskas was fouled on a 3-point attempt with .4 seconds left and, after officials reviewed the play, hit two free throws to give the Wolverines a 47-30 lead.
It was that kind of day for Michigan, and for Florida, as well.