SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Down 10 with 14 minutes to go, John Beilein scooped his jawline and paced the sidelines with his head down, overlooking his bench. What happened to his team?
He knew not to take No. 11-seeded Loyola-Chicago lightly. In his eyes, the Ramblers weren’t a Cinderella anymore after they made it to the Sweet Sixteen two weeks ago. But his Wolverines? After all they’d been through, they weren’t supposed to be down double-digits, struggling to buy a bucket in the Final Four.
“We’re not like that where we can go and just school anybody,” Beilein said. “We’ve got really good players, don’t get me wrong, but every team that’s playing right now is playing because they play great defense.”
It wasn’t until eight minutes later that Moritz Wagner converted a putback and-one and flexed his muscles towards his bench that Beilein griped at. What happened to his team? Wagner’s and-one — three of his 24 total points, and one of his 15 total rebounds — was the nightcap to a 17-2 run and a 53-47 lead. It was as good of a spurt as they’ve had all year. That is what a Beilein-led, March team looks like.
It’s a resiliency that found its footing and persisted. Michigan (33-7 overall) willed its way over Loyola (32-6) in front of nearly 70,000 people at the Alamodome, 69-57. What once seemed an impossibility is now reality — the Wolverines are playing in the National Championship against Villanova on Monday.
The high stakes of the contest — and the nerves coupled with it — were evident from the get-go. By the under-eight media timeout in the first half, sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, who has a 2.69 assist-turnover ratio, coughed it up three times without scoring. Abdur-Rahkman — who finished 2-for-11 — also felt the pressure, forcing up seven errant, unfruitful attempts in the first half. Their efforts headlined one of the Wolverines worst first half outputs of the season.
“We had eight turnovers in the first half. We were one (assist) and eight,” Beilein said. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen one of our teams ever be one assist to eight turnovers. … We had to adjust to how quickly they were rotating to some of our action, because they were switching so much.”
Wagner and redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews were the lone Wolverines to impress in the first 20 minutes. Wagner was nearly unstoppable on the boards, collecting a double-double at the 3:08 mark of the first frame. Matthews’ eight points and four rebounds also made up for an otherwise-abysmal 9-for-31 first-half display by Michigan.
The Ramblers were able to capitalize marginally through center Cameron Krutwig, who met Wagner in kind. Krutwig bullied his way for eight of his 17 total points in the paint in the first half.
His performance highlighted the Ramblers’ quiet 10-for-24 first-half shooting performance from the field, as well as 9-for-10 from the free throw line. The defensive dogfight, a 29-22 halftime advantage for Loyola, was a snoozer with a Final Four sticker slapped on top of it.
“I knew they were trying to punch us,” Wagner said. “First of all, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit; their set plays are incredible. Tough to guard. And their big man does an incredible job down there as a freshman. So we had to cover that somehow defensively.
“And I tried to do my job, tried not to foul and stay solid, build walls and grab rebounds. And it worked out.”
The second half began as a mirror opposite to the previous half. Michigan and Loyola exchanged baskets, with the Wolverines unable to carve into the deficit.
Then Wagner went to work. He continued his impressive play with a dunk to open Michigan’s scoring and two steals from telegraphed passes that led to baskets. But this time, Wagner was no longer the only life raft in the Wolverines’ 17-2 run.
Fifth-year senior point guard Jaaron Simmons hit a corner trey — his first since the first round matchup against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. Then freshman guard Jordan Poole, who played just two minutes against Florida State in the Elite Eight, drove to the hoop for an unexpected two points. Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson followed with a long 3-pointer. The Wolverines were down just three points with building momentum.
“I just knew it, it had that feeling,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “One of these times down we were gonna get a stop, turn it into offense and keep going and going. We just needed that spark plug.”
And the run that Michigan needed so badly became legitimate. Down 47-44 with 6:05 remaining, Wagner calmly corralled a low-post pass, dribbled to the corner and knocked down a triple.
Wagner’s villainy wasn’t finished, of course. He had his and-one putback and his flex — an exclamation point on the best game of his life.
“I mean, 24 and 15 — If I need to explain anything more than that, it’s a problem,” Simpson said. “That’s what a leader does.”
A poster reading “Bye Bye Sista” — a dig at Loyola’s team chaplain and media sensation, Sister Jean — flashed to the camera. The Wolverines’ stout defense made sure it really was goodbye.
“They did what great teams do,” said Ramblers coach Porter Moser. “They capitalized on that run where we made six turnovers in a row.”
It was enough to put Cinderella — or whoever they are, if you’re Beilein — to bed and secure a spot in the championship.
Maybe you could go back to March 17 and credit Poole’s buzzer-beater against Houston to Michigan’s success. But when the Wolverines had to show up, they did. It’s equally plausible that they were meant to be here the whole time.
“I feel like we’ve kinda controlled the games we’ve played in,” Robinson said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re here. We’re playing well at the right time.”
But it doesn’t matter how it happened — they made it to the biggest stage in college basketball. You don’t get there with just luck.