With just 14 seconds left in its Tuesday night game against Texas, the Michigan men’s basketball team was desperately clinging to a one-point lead. The Longhorns had the ball on their baseline for a throw-in.
The inbounds pass went straight to Texas guard Eric Davis Jr., who dribbled the ball into the middle and went up for what could have been the game-winning shot. But standing directly in his path was sophomore forward Moritz Wagner with an impressive 6-foot-11 frame. Wagner closed in on Davis Jr. in a hurry and promptly blocked the ball with just three ticks left on the clock, drawing a deafening roar from the Crisler Center crowd as Michigan held on for a 53-50 win.
“I knew that they were trying to be aggressive, down one, trying to draw a foul or at least go to the rim,” Wagner said. “I kind of expected that a little bit, so I waited until he jumped. … I was happy it turned out to be a block.”
In the most critical moment of the game, Wagner encapsulated the defensive effort that the Wolverines put forth throughout the night in order to dictate the run of play and eventually earn the victory.
Against a Texas team known for its up-tempo style of play on both sides of the ball, Michigan knew it would have its work cut out for it to keep up with the speed and athleticism of its opponent.
To match the fast pace of Texas, the Wolverines adopted an attack-minded defense. They went after the Longhorns from the opening tip, swarming them on every possession. Michigan made it tough for them to create space and run their offense every time they touched the ball.
Putting significant pressure on them in every man-to-man matchup, the Wolverines forced 10 turnovers in the first half alone. Whenever a body hit the deck to snag a bouncing ball, the jersey that turned up with it seemed to always be maize.
Outhustling Texas all over the court, Michigan opened up a 10-point lead in the first half, but a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Longhorn guard Tevin Mack capped off a six-point run in the final minute to reduce the Wolverines’ lead to just three.
In the opening five minutes of the second half, Texas turned the tide on Michigan even more. While the Wolverines hit a drought, the Longhorns made it rain. Scoring 12 points to one Wolverine free throw, Texas took its first lead of the game and forced Michigan to call a timeout.
With the Longhorns firmly putting themselves back in the game, the Wolverines picked up the intensity that had served them well in the game’s opening stanza. With a stifling defense that kept it neck-and-neck with Texas down the stretch, Michigan gave itself a chance to win a game in which neither offense showed up in a major way.
“You don’t see us win many (games) where it’s just about our defense,” said Michigan coach John Beliein. “It was gritty, it was tough in the last two minutes. …Our kids just sat down and guarded, and nobody could make a shot. It was not a pretty offensive game, but we got done what we had to get done.”
With Wagner — who finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds, and that all-important block — leading the charge, the Wolverines did what they needed to do in order to win.
“What he shows up as in the box score is only a fraction of really what he means to this team,” said senior guard Duncan Robinson. “He said multiple times down the stretch, just to me, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ Having that reassurance, especially from a sophomore — he’s mature beyond his years.”