Wolver­ines in Sweet 16 as No. 7 seed


The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Michael Marot

indianapolis» 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 but of­ten over­looked 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 6-foot-11 sopho­more for­ward from Ber­lin was the well-de­served cen­ter of attention.

Wag­ner scored a ca­reer-high 26 points, in­clud­ing the bas­ket that spurred Michi­gan’s fu­ri­ous sec­ond-half rally, and capped the day with a 3-pointer to give the sev­enth-seeded Wolver­ines the lead for good as they elim­i­nated 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 se­nior guard 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 only 19-11 and try­ing to keep its NCAA Tour­na­ment hopes alive. But the Wolver­ines have won seven straight — six com-

ing af­ter a fright­en­ing plane ac­ci­dent on their way to the Big Ten Tour­na­ment in Wash­ing­ton.

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

Trail­ing 45-36 with 16:09 to play Sun­day, Wag­ner made a layup that started a 17-6 run to give Michi­gan its first lead since the open­ing min­utes of the game. And when Wag­ner knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:39 re­main­ing 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 school’s pep band and pump­ing their fists to­ward yel­low-clad fans as the school’s fight song boomed.

Once in­side the Wolver­ines’ locker room, vet­eran 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 only 3-3 in its pre­vi­ous six games, peren­nial pow­er­house Louisville (25-9) came into Sun­day’s game as a small fa­vorite.

Louisville 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 Tour­na­ment ap­pear­ances.

But af­ter sit­ting out last year’s NCAA Tour­na­ment 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 of tra­di­tion-rich pro­grams that played for a na­tional cham­pi­onship only 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 10 days or two weeks, we’ve got­ten sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter be­cause we worked in­side to out.”

Sopho­more guard Dono­van Mitchell fin­ished with 19 points, seven re­bounds and five as­sists to lead Louisville. Sopho­more for­ward Deng Adel scored 16 points, in­clud­ing a mon­ster dunk, and se­nior for­ward Man­gok Mathi­ang fin­ished with 13 points.

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-point at­tempts.

Wal­ton fin­ished with 10 points, seven re­bounds and six as­sists de­spite go­ing only 3-of-13 from the field. And two days af­ter mak­ing a school-record 16 3-point­ers in an NCAA Tour­na­ment game, the Wolver­ines were just 6-of-17 behind the arc against Louisville.

In­stead, the Wolver­ines pounded the ball in­side to 6-10 ju­nior for­ward D.J. Wil­son, who fin­ished with 17 points, three blocked shots and two steals, and to the gritty Wag­ner, who spent most of Fri­day’s first-round win in foul trou­ble.

Wag­ner used his fresh legs Sun­day 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.”

Louisville fell to 12-1 in games played as a No. 2 seed.

The next stop for Michi­gan is Kansas City, Mo., where the Wolver­ines (26-11) will play third-seeded Ore­gon (31-5) in the Mid­west Re­gional semi­fi­nals Thurs­day.

Michael Conroy, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Michi­gan for­wards D.J. Wil­son, left, and Moe Wag­ner cel­e­brate dur­ing the sec­ond half Sun­day against Louisville.

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