Wolverines in Sweet 16 as No. 7 seed
MICHIGAN 73, LOUISVILLE 69
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.
Michigan forwards D.J. Wilson, left, and Moe Wagner celebrate during the second half Sunday against Louisville.