STATE COLLEGE — Early in the second half, the “Wagner” chants returned.
It was reminiscent of Michigan’s January trip to Nebraska. The Wolverines lost by 20 in Lincoln, and Wagner — opposing crowds’ favorite guy to heckle — struggled mightily.
Back then, the junior forward had no comeback for the taunts. He was frustrated by the Cornhuskers all night, and at the end of the contest, he sat quietly on the bench as the crowd chanted his name. Nebraska trounced Michigan.
Wednesday, the Wolverines were in danger of something similar. But this time, Wagner had an answer.
It was after he had been blocked on a layup attempt by Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, leading to an and-one to put the Nittany Lions on top. Michigan’s eight-point halftime lead had evaporated. Two minutes later, Stevens threw down an alley-oop to increase the lead to three, and the Bryce Jordan Center broke out the Wagner chants.
The Wolverines looked helpless on offense. Michigan coach John Beilein admitted he was frustrated with that side of the ball at the time.
The next possession didn’t look much better. The shot clock was trickling down, and the Wolverines still couldn’t find their flow. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman probed into the lane and kicked it out to Wagner with five on the clock. The junior rose up from the right corner and tied the game with a three.
With just over 12 minutes to go, Wagner did it again off a pick-and-pop to give Michigan its lead back. The Wolverines never trailed again, winning 72-63.
“During that situation, we just look to try to get a good shot,” said sophomore guard Zavier Simpson. “Moe had big enough balls to take them, so we appreciate him. He made them, and we’re glad for that. It kind of settled us down and made us enjoy the situation of us being up. We took advantage of it. So we were proud of that, and a big shoutout to Moe for knocking those shots down.”
Added Beilein: “(We had) very poor direction at that time. … Usually in the second half, I can help them with that. He got open, luckily, and he made them both, and now, all of the sudden, it’s a one-point game, and now we’re back playing.”
It was that kind of shooting that sealed the game for Michigan. Wagner finished the game 4-for-5 from deep with 18 points. Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson went 3-for-6 from beyond the arc and finished with 19 points.
Both hit clutch shots when the Wolverines needed them. Beilein complimented how they “don’t have a conscience.”
That’s especially important for Wagner.
He knows he draws the ire of opposing crowds wherever he goes, and Michigan struggled on the road early in the season.
Wagner somewhat relishes the villain role though, as he’s shooting 46% from three in opposing arenas. It’s a phenomenon he can’t really explain, just like he can’t explain why he’s the center of road crowds’ attention.
“For some reason they hate me everywhere, but I just play honestly,” Wagner said. “I don’t think about that type of stuff. Last year, I remember people asking me why my shooting numbers were so low on the road. Now it’s the other way around. If you know me, I don’t look like I’m not enjoying this out there. I definitely have fun, and it’s cool.”
It’s a unique perspective for sure.
It would be easy to crumble under the pressure knowing that 13,000 people are dying to see you get your shot blocked or turn the ball over. They’d revel in any frustration at all.
They loved it in Lincoln. It was the sideshow to the game, as the student section pestered Wagner into submission.
But despite the same chant raining down on the court and the other team threatening a similar run to put the Wolverines away, there was one, key difference.
Wagner had an answer.