In one of the most unlikely Final Four semifinal matchups ever, Loyola appeared on course to extend its stunning NCAA Tournament run to the national championship game.
Then Moritz Wagner and Michigan’s long-armed defense snuffed out the team that grabbed at America’s heartstrings for a couple of weeks.
Wagner’s 24 points and 14 rebounds, along with the Wolverines’ defense that forced a spate of turnovers during a game-breaking 17-2 run, were the storylines in a 69-57 win Saturday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
The result pushed Michigan (33-7), the West Region champs, into the national championship game Monday night against either Kansas or Villanova. The Ramblers, trying to win their first national title since 1963, ended a terrific season at 32-6.
They didn’t have an answer for Wagner, the 6-foot-11 junior from Germany who has helped lead the Wolverines and coach John Beilein to the brink of his first national title in a distinguished career.
Wagner tied the game at 47 on a 3-pointer with 6:56 remaining, then capped the game-breaking run with a 3-point play at the 4:59 mark to make it 54-47. When Loyola tried to fight back, Wagner answered with a layup and another 3 to up the margin to 59-51 with 2:59 left, essentially ending the Ramblers’ hopes.
“I was taking what the opponent is giving me, what the game is giving me,” Wagner said. “I was just trying to stay emotionally solid.”
While Wagner supplied the points, he and his teammates wouldn’t have reached Monday night without clamping down defensively. After trailing 12-4 before the game’s second TV timeout, Loyola found its sea legs and started carving up the Wolverines with good spacing and precise execution.
After ending the first half with a 25-10 run to take a seven-point halftime lead, the Ramblers extended their advantage to 10 when freshman center Cameron Krutwig converted a 3-point play. They owned a 45-37 lead after two Clayton Custer free throws with 11:25 remaining when Michigan went to work.
In a 7:42 span, Loyola managed just two points — a Krutwig layup at the 9:19 mark. The Ramblers coughed up five turnovers over four minutes as the Wolverines’ length forced some poor passes, as well as bad decisions.
“We made a couple of shots, but our defense got better,” Beilein said. “It was really good down the stretch.”
Charles Matthews added 17 points for Michigan, which won despite making only 42.4 percent from the field and 7-of-28 on 3-point attempts. It outrebounded Loyola 35-31 and committed just 11 turnovers.
Krutwig paced the Ramblers with 17 points, but also coughed up six of their 17 turnovers. Custer, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, finished with 15 points. Aundre Jackson hit for 10.
But it wasn’t enough to deny Wagner and the Wolverines.
“It’s incredible; I’ve really enjoyed this ride,” Wagner said. “I’m so happy to share it with these guys. We have one more to go.”
–Field Level Media