Michigan’s Title Game Past: Magic Vs. Bird, Rumeal’s Free Throws, The Flintstones And More

Written By Nolan Bianchi on April 4, 2022 - Last Updated on May 13, 2022
Collage of the state's basketball champions

The NCAA Men’s National Championship is upon us, and with both Michigan and Michigan State making early exits from this year’s tournament we’re calling for state unity to close out March Madness.

The rival programs are more similar than they’d like to admit, and their arguments about each other’s all-time legacy within the sport of college basketball typically plays out like a Michael Jordan-LeBron James argument.

Michigan State is 2-1 all time in national championship games, but has only advanced to the title game three times in 10 Final Four appearances. Michigan, on the other hand, has made the championship game seven times in eight Final Four appearances, but is a nauseating 1-6 in the winner-take-all matchups.

As we prepare for Kansas and North Carolina to square off for all the marbles, let’s take a look at the state of Michigan’s title game history.

1965 — Michigan vs. UCLA

After winning the Big Ten and finishing No. 1 in the final AP poll of the season, Michigan looked primed to earn its first national championship in basketball entering the 1965 NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they ran into the greatest coach in college basketball history.

John Wooden’s UCLA squad tackled Michigan, 91-80, for its second consecutive title as future Los Angeles Lakers draft pick Gail Goodrich set a record for most points in a national championship game with 42. Cazzie Russel’s 28 points wouldn’t be enough to overcome a 13-point deficit as Michigan’s century of pain in title games got underway. 

By the time that Michigan would make it back to the title game 11 years later, Wooden would guide UCLA to eight more titles (including seven straight from 1967-1973). 

1976 — Michigan vs. Indiana

Michigan’s second national title game appearance, which came after a second-place Big Ten finish and No. 9 ranking in the final AP poll, was no different. 

Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, who went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the nation with a perfect 32-0 season, stopped the Wolverines short of their ultimate goal in 1976 with an 86-68 beatdown for Knight’s first title. Michigan actually took a six-point lead into halftime, but Indiana came out of the locker room like a heat-seeking missile and smacked the Wolverines with 57 second-half points that would decide the game in convincing fashion. 

1979 — No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Indiana State

Hooray! A win! 

In what was possibly the greatest season in Michigan State history, some fella by the name of Earvin “Magic” Johnson led the Spartans to a first-place finish in the Big Ten and a No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll.

Michigan State marched through the tournament, setting up a title game that featured one of the greatest star-on-star matchups in NCAA Championship history against Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad.

Bird put on a strong performance in the national championship game — 19 points and 13 rebounds with five steals — but Magic was simply better. He had a game-high 24 points, plus seven rebounds and five assists and Greg Kelser added 19, eight and nine as Michigan State claimed its first national title — and state superiority — with a 75-64 win that would prime the nation for one of the greatest NBA rivalries in history.

1989 — No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 3 Seton Hall

Ten years after Michigan State won its first national title, the Wolverines would draw even in 1989 behind an improbable run that would dictate the hiring of the university’s football coach some three decades later.

Head coach Bill Frieder was fired by athletic director Bo Schembechler during the final week of the regular season after informing him that he’d be taking the Arizona State job at season’s end. Schembechler promoted longtime assistant Steve Fischer, saying that “A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.”

Fischer went 6-0 as coach thanks to a dominant tournament from that summer’s fourth-overall pick Glen Rice, who averaged more than 25 points per game that season and put up 31 with 11 rebounds in an 80-79 win over Seton Hall.

In the end, though, it was Rumeal Robinson (21 points) who came out as the hero. With Michigan down one, Robinson was fouled on a drive to the lane with three seconds left, hit both free throws, and Michigan came out victorious after the last-gasp effort from Seton Hall missed.

1992 — No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 1 Duke

Fischer and the Wolverines returned to the title game just three years later behind another improbable run, this time as a 6-seed with five freshmen starters known as the Fab Five. You may have heard of them. 

Even if you’re not familiar, you can probably surmise the result by knowing that Michigan faced off against Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils in the championship. This one doesn’t hurt nearly as much as the next season’s loss, though, as the young Wolverines were simply outclassed in the second half of a 71-51 loss.

1993 — No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 1 North Carolina

We’ve reached the halfway point of this list, so if you’re a little tired of reading, now might be a good time for a timeout — unless, of course, you don’t have one.

Sorry, sorry.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s a more demoralizing — and strange — moment in Michigan sports history than the Wolverines’ 1993 title game finish. A year after falling to Duke, Michigan entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed and would face off with Hall-of-Famer Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels.

With 19 seconds to go and the Wolverines down by two, Chris Webber pulled down a rebound and got away with a travel in the backcourt before pushing the ball to the corner of the floor. He was trapped by two Tar Heels defenders and called timeout so Michigan could regroup for the potential winning shot.

Only problem was, Michigan didn’t have any timeouts and it resulted in a technical foul that would seal the game for North Carolina. It’d take the program nearly two full decades to recover.

2000 — No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Florida

In just his fifth season after taking over for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State, Tom Izzo led the Spartans back to the promised land in 2000. As a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year, Michigan State met No. 5 Florida under head coach Billy Donovan — a non-Hall-of-Famer — in the championship game.

Mateen Cleaves was temporarily forced out of the game with an ankle injury, but returned to put up 18 points and four assists as Morris Peterson scored 21 to hold off the Gators, who got 27 points from Udonis Haslem.

While Florida played Michigan State tightly in the second half, an 11-point halftime lead for the Spartans helped them to a comfortable 89-76 win as Cleaves was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

2009 — No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 North Carolina

While nothing can come close to the devastation that Michigan suffered in its championship game loss to North Carolina, Michigan State’s 2009 title game loss to the Tar Heels — this time coached by Roy Williams —  probably comes closest. 

After Michigan State was blown out by North Carolina during a Big Ten-ACC Challenge game at Ford Field a few months earlier (dubbed Basketbowl II), it got a second shot when the Final Four came to Detroit in that very same venue after a thrilling win over UConn. But from jump, it simply wasn’t the Spartans’ night the second time around, either. 

Michigan State starters Travis Walton, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe were neutralized for a combined eight points as the Tar Heels jumped out to a 36-13 lead in Detroit and never looked back, claiming the title with an 89-72 victory.

2013 — No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 1 Louisville

After Webber’s timeout, it took Michigan basketball two decades to get back to such heights. Michigan looked to be a team of destiny after Trey Burke’s insane 3-pointer helped the Wolverines top Kansas and head to the Sweet 16, but in the national championship game, Michigan simply ran into a man amongst boys: Luke Hancock.

The Wolverines saw a 12-point lead evaporate as Hancock went 5-for-5 from 3-point land and finished with a team-high 22 points to become the first bench player to earn most outstanding player honors in a national championship.

Adding insult to injury is the ever-lasting image of Burke’s block of Louisville guard Peyton Siva in the final minutes which was called a foul and derailed momentum in a close game before the Cardinals capped off the win, 82-76

Oh, yeah: Louisville head coach Rick Pitino? Basketball Hall of Fame, class of 2013.

2018 — No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 1 Villanova

John Beilein’s squad looked to seek redemption in the 2018 title game, but unlike in 2013, it never really felt like the Wolverines were in this one.

Michigan’s Isaiah Livers was held scoreless and Donte DiVincenzo was an absolute menace for Villanova, finishing with 31 points, five rebounds and three assists as the Wildcats marched to a second-half blowout for their second title in three years under head coach Jay Wright, who, of course, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2021.

The Wolverines didn’t expect to make it this far, and while it’s unfortunate that they’ve run into the tournament’s top seed in each of their five most recent national title game losses, such is the nature of the tournament. With Juwan Howard at the helm, they can only hope to one day be the team on the other side of that equation.

Photo by Associated Press
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Nolan Bianchi

Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit-based freelance journalist covering the Lions, Red Wings and everything in between. He is the former host of the Locked On Red Wings hockey podcast, still collects sports cards, is a published playwright and is a harsh critic of sandwiches.

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