DAYTON, Ohio — With 22 seconds left and a First Four victory securely locked in place, Moritz Wagner exited the hardwood at University of Dayton Arena and lifted his arms. All night, the freshman forward pumped up his teammates and the crowd on Michigan’s way to a 67-62 victory over Tulsa (20-12).
His exuberance wasn’t unwarranted.
Wagner played 22 minutes on his way to eight rebounds, four blocks and four points — all of which came off of slam dunks. He had just two blocks all season until Wednesday night, when he doubled his season total.
“Yeah, Mo’s an energy guy,” said sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “Even when he’s not on the court, he’s trying to lift us up when we’re down and things like that. So it’s great to see him out there, being energized and play well.”
After shooting 3-for-3 for nine points against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament during his first substantive minutes since December, Wagner has seen the floor more often, and for good reason.
Though Wagner’s help came on the offensive end against the Hoosiers, his help in the First Four came on the defensive.
During Michigan’s 6:13 scoring drought in the first half, which resulted in a Golden Hurricane 8-0 run, Wagner prevented Tulsa from wreaking more havoc on the Wolverines (23-12) with his well-timed blocks — one of which came within his first minute on the court.
In the second half, Wagner blocked 6-foot-9 forward Brandon Swannegan, trapping the ball against the backboard. Wagner proved to be the best option against Swannegan, an important role to have in a game where Tulsa scored 38 of its 62 points in the paint.
Though he did most of his damage on the defensive end, Wagner’s few offensive performances were ones to remember. Sixteen seconds after being subbed into the game, Wagner stole the ball. Redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson missed his 3-point attempt on the possession, but Wagner followed up with an offensive rebound. Seconds later, Robinson threw the ball to Wagner so he could jam it into the net for a two-handed slam to give Michigan a 9-8 lead.
Later, Wagner had the ball just beyond the arc and momentarily thought about shooting it, but he decided to take a few long strides to get beneath the net after seeing Abdur-Rahkman in the corner. He dished it to the sophomore guard, who drove for a layup.
Of course, Wagner’s most-memorable play came when the two teams were trading buckets as the clock ticked down. After a Robinson layup put Michigan back up by one point with 2:49 remaining, the Wolverines needed to capitalize on the next possession, and they did. Wagner grabbed an offensive board after Abdur-Rahkman missed a jumper, and he dumped it into the net to give Michigan 59-56 lead.
Following his dunk and the late-game scare, Wagner turned to the crowd for help and encouragement.
“When you tell me that right now, I feel a little embarrassed,” Wagner said of his loud engagement with the crowd. “That’s just me. I can’t help it, I’m just doing it. It’s fun. It’s great. It’s just me.”
Fouling has been a problem of Wagner’s, but he didn’t foul at all in the first half. He collected his first almost 10 minutes into the second. Twenty seconds later, he fouled again and was consequently subbed out. Though his fouls didn’t prevent him from seeing the court, it was obvious that he was concerned about fouling.
Just over eight minutes into the first half, Wagner stared down the referee nearest to him, nervously clenching his teeth. It was almost as if he was afraid that his second block of the game was going to be called a foul, and that he would end up on the bench like he had in too many of his previous games.
But it was called for what it was — the freshman’s second block of the game — and the big man stayed in. The rest is history, and now the Wolverines are on their way to Brooklyn to take on No. 6 seed Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Mo has been huge for us,” said junior guard Zak Irvin. “He’s definitely a spark plug off the bench. It all started in the Big Ten Tournament. He was a big asset tonight. He’s gotta keep that going into Notre Dame.”