It’s March Mad­ness

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE -

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Moe Wag­ner grit­ted his teeth, pumped his fist and stuck out his mouth­piece to the crowd’s de­light Sun­day.

A few min­utes later, the tough Ger­man took a cou­ple more bows — first on the base­line in front of Michi­gan’s bench, then with the rest of his team­mates near mid­court.

Sud­denly, the of­ten over­looked 6-foot-11 for­ward was the well-de­served cen­ter of at­ten­tion.

Wag­ner scored a ca­reer high 26 points, made the bas­ket that spurred Michi­gan’s fu­ri­ous sec­ond-half rally and capped the day with a 3-pointer to give the Wolver­ines the lead for good as they knocked off sec­ond-seeded Louisville 73-69 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.

“He’s got the men­tal­ity where he wants to make the play,” said Der­rick Wal­ton Jr., who drove in for Michi­gan’s fi­nal bas­ket with 29 sec­onds left. “He just makes the right play at all times. He has the calls to make the big plays, so we feed off him be­cause he’s not afraid of any­thing.”

Wag­ner’s fear­less­ness has played a big part in Michi­gan’s im­prob­a­ble late-sea­son run.

In late Fe­bru­ary, Michi­gan was just 19-11 and try­ing to keep its NCAA Tour­na­ment hopes alive. Since then, it has won seven straight, six com­ing after a fright­en­ing plane ac­ci­dent on their way to the Big Ten Tour­na­ment.

So it seemed only fit­ting that the emo­tion, poise and mo­men­tum Michi­gan mus­tered over th­ese past few weeks would help them fight their way off the ropes. Again.

Trail­ing 45-36 with 16:09 to play, Wag­ner made a layup that started a 17-6 run to give Michi­gan its first lead since the open­ing min­utes of the game. When Wag­ner knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:39 to go to break a 55-55 tie, the Wolver­ines never trailed again.

Af­ter­ward, Michi­gan’s play­ers cel­e­brated by jump­ing around near mid­court, then walk­ing next to the pep band and pump­ing their fists to­ward yel­low-clad fans as the school fight song boomed.

Once in­side the locker room, coach John Beilein play­fully squirted his play­ers with a wa­ter gun.

“A lit­tle damp right now,” Beilein said as the postgame news con­fer­ence be­gan. “But our guys, we started a tra­di­tion of tak­ing a shower, I guess, with­out go­ing into the shower after good wins. It’s not stop­ping.” At least not in Indianapolis. De­spite go­ing 3-3 in their pre­vi­ous six games, Louisville (259) came into Sun­day as a small fa­vorite.

Coach Rick Pitino was 3-1 in head-to-head matchups with Beilein and the Car­di­nals had made it to the Sweet 16 in each of their pre­vi­ous four NCAA ap­pear­ances.

But after sit­ting out last year’s tour­ney be­cause of a school-im­posed post­sea­son ban, the Car­di­nals’ hopes were doused largely be­cause of Wag­ner’s ability to re­peat­edly get to the bas­ket. That was all it took in a matchup be­tween the two teams that played for a na­tional cham­pi­onship four years ago.

“We made some poor switches,” Pitino said. “Prob­a­bly the weak­ness of our team this year has been our de­fense. Our of­fense in the last ten days or two weeks, we’ve got­ten sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter be­cause we worked in­side to out.”.

Dono­van Mitchell fin­ished with 19 points, seven re­bounds and five as­sists to lead Louisville. Deng Adel had 16 points and Man­gok Mathi­ang added 13.

Not much went as ex­pected, though.

Louisville’s pressure de­fense forced only six Michi­gan turnovers and the Car­di­nals wound up just 5 of 20 on 3-point­ers.

Wal­ton had 10 points, seven re­bounds and six as­sists de­spite go­ing 3 of 13 from the field. And two days after mak­ing a school record 16 3-point­ers in a tour­ney game, the Wolver­ines were just 6 of 17.

In­stead, they pounded the ball in­side to D.J. Wil­son, who had 17 points, three blocks and two steals, and the gritty Wag­ner, who spent most of Fri­day’s firstround win in foul trou­ble.

On Sun­day, he used his fresh legs to do the dirty work so well that the usu­ally re­li­able, quiet sopho­more screamed in cel­e­bra­tion.

“We al­ways be­lieved in our­selves,” Wag­ner said. “I just said to Coach B, we only shot six 3s to­day and we won. So it’s awe­some. We played gritty bas­ket­ball, and I think we can be proud of that.”

PHOTO

Michi­gan for­ward Moritz Wag­ner cel­e­brates a bas­ket against Louisville dur­ing the first half of a sec­ond-round game in the men’s NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment Sun­day in Indianapolis. AP

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