Wolverines, Wagner outlast Louisville, advance to Sweet 16

Sunday, March 19, 2017 - 10:45am

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INDIANAPOLIS — John Beilein was grinning, peeking around the corner of the door.

Then he jumped into the locker room, Super Soaker in tow, and the water started flying.

Michigan was going to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Mo. The only thing that could have made it sweeter was if it was legal to use champagne.

“Coach told us that he bought a Super Soaker last night,” said redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. “Because he knew that we were going to come out with a win.”

And right he was, as the Wolverines defeated Louisville, 73-69, to solidify a place in the Sweet 16 and simultaneously give Beilein a second victory against Rick Pitino that had eluded him since 2005.

“I went into this game with a lot of confidence that I was gonna be using it at the end of that game,” Beilein said. “At the end of the first half, I wasn’t so sure the Super Soaker — it was ever gonna be known I had it. But we withstood everything they had and won the game.”

More than anyone else, Beilein has Moritz Wagner to thank for that. 

Michigan’s sophomore big man scored a game-high 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting, willing the Wolverines forward in a game that — for the majority of the contest — looked like it was Louisville’s for the taking.

Michigan (10-8 Big Ten, 26-11 overall) entered the matchup as the No. 4 team in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. The Cardinals (12-6 ACC, 25-9 overall), on the other hand, took the floor as the seventh-ranked team in adjusted defensive efficiency.

In a battle of offensive juggernaut and defensive powerhouse, something had to give. In the first half, it was Michigan’s offense that lost out.

Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. — the man who has been carrying Michigan through March— didn’t score until the 4:56 mark, when he knocked down a pair from the charity stripe. Until his 3-pointer with 2:33 remaining, Walton was 0-for-6 from the field. Still, even at that point, the Wolverines trailed by just three.

In reality, Michigan was lucky that was so.

The Wolverines shot 37 percent from the floor and were 3-for-11 from behind the arc. Louisville didn’t fair much better — shooting 42 percent from the floor — but dominated Michigan on the boards, grabbing 24 rebounds to the Wolverines’ 16. Ten of those came on the offensive glass, and the Cardinals made Michigan pay, scoring 11 second-chance points in the first half.

The Wolverines’ offensive struggles culminated in a five-minute scoring drought that was only broken at the 7:57 mark by a Wagner layup. Michigan was fortunate that Louisville went on a scoring drought of its own — failing to hit from the field for nearly four minutes.

But forward Deng Adel ended that drought with authority, coasting down the floor on a fast break before putting Wilson on a poster to give Louisville a five-point lead.

Shortly thereafter, it looked like Michigan’s luck had finally run out, that the story of the team that went through a plane crash and made a tournament run was coming to a close.

It looked like — once again — Rick Pitino was going to get the better of John Beilein.

There was just over a minute left in the frame when Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell hit the triple — marking just his third field goal of the frame.

Adel followed Mitchell’s lead, converting from beyond the arc on the Cardinals’ next offensive possession. And then he nailed a pair from the free-throw line.

One minute and 10 seconds, an eight-point swing, and the Wolverines went from tied at 28 to trailing by eight at the half.

But Wagner came out firing.

He scored eight of Michigan’s first 10 points in the second half, starting what would eventually become a 17-point second-half total for the sophomore. The Cardinals still proved too much, opening 4-for-6 from the floor to counteract Wagner’s individual effort.

Eventually, though, senior wing Zak Irvin joined the party — scoring six straight points with 13:25 remaining to cut Michigan’s deficit to three. Just over four minutes later, junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finally put the Wolverines within striking distance, knocking down two free throws to tie the game at 53.

From there, it became a slugfest, with each team vying back and forth for the lead that could send them to the Sweet 16.

Wagner finally gave Michigan the edge — nailing one from deep with 6:41 left to play and jumpstarting an 8-2 run that gave Michigan a six-point lead.

With 56 seconds remaining, Louisville went into desperation mode and it nearly paid off, as the Cardinals forced a turnover with their full court press before hitting a layup to cut the Wolverines’ lead to two.

And yet, despite going 2-for-12 in the game to that point, Walton converted when it mattered most —hitting a layup on the other end before Wilson put the game to bed from the charity stripe.

In the end, Michigan managed to outlast Louisville.

“We’re gonna do everything we can to win this whole thing,” Beilein said. “I’m no spring chicken in this thing. You get bad calls, you get injuries. … you get to the Sweet 16 and you’re only four games away from winning the whole thing.  

“… I don’t know who’s next, but I know we’re going to go into this thing not content with what we’ve done.”

For a long time, it looked like the story would end in Indy, like the Wolverines’ luck had run out and like John Beilein’s March history with Pitino was just too much to overcome.

But Wagner said the hell with luck, and the hell with history.