Wagner has best performance yet on biggest stage

Saturday, March 31, 2018 - 11:30pm

Junior forward Moritz Wagner was the third player to ever have 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal.

Junior forward Moritz Wagner was the third player to ever have 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Moritz Wagner left his hotel room early on Friday.

The junior forward was anxious about the Michigan men’s basketball team’s Final Four matchup with Loyola-Chicago, and he couldn’t stand sitting still anymore, letting the nerves fester.

So he told his roommate, sophomore center Jon Teske, that he was leaving.

“I was a little restless and wanted to get out there,” Wagner said. “When you prepare for a week for a game, I hate that. I want to play basketball, that’s why I play.”

Who could blame Wagner for getting restless? In a postseason where every game is the new biggest game of Wagner’s and every other Wolverine’s career, Friday’s game was the next one up.

In hindsight, Wagner had nothing to worry about.

When all was said and done, he dropped 24 points and 15 rebounds in front of 68,000-plus, fueling his team to an appearance in the NCAA Championship game. The performance was the third time in history that a player had a 20-point, 15-rebound game in the semifinals, putting Wagner in the same company as Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird.

“Wow. If you put it like that, it's probably cool,” Wagner said of the distinction. “But to be honest, I kept looking possession by possession, we had trouble scoring (in) the first half. We scored 22 points and that was kind of the only way we found our way to the basket. Grab offensive rebounds and get second-shot opportunities.”

It’s typical of Wagner to shrug off his accomplishment. After all, this is the same guy who has said he doesn’t understand America’s obsession with awards.

But especially on the rebounding side of things, the performance is a standout one.

Part of Wagner’s success can be credited Beilein’s gameplan. Instead of the pick-and-pops that have become Wagner’s bread and butter, Beilein decided that, against the undersized Ramblers, Wagner could be used as an asset on the glass. So Beilein told him to dive down to the block when a guard switched onto him.

But most of the success should be credited to Wagner himself. His immense growth on the boards was evident in Saturday's national semifinal.

The knock on Wagner had always been his defense and rebounding, and he’s acknowledged that before. He’s worked tirelessly to improve those parts of his game, and it’s shown, in flashes, over the year.

Never like Friday, though. Against a smaller opponent, Wagner feasted on the glass. Six of his 15 boards were on the offensive end, both good enough for career highs. It seems his hard work has paid off.

 “I think we all forget when we’re recruiting, which players are gonna grow? Or which ones are gonna transfer because they aren’t growing fast enough, because they’re probably not putting in the work?” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Moe puts in the work.

“You know, his freshman year, we had to get him off the court over and over again. He’d have a flash, and then we’d say, ‘What is going on?’ Gradually, he’s growing and he’s growing. He’ll misstep, but he grows. That’s what good players do, and that’s how college teams win. And that’s also how you have a great career after college.”

Early in his career, Beilein had to take Wagner off the court. Friday, there was no option but to leave him out there. That was partially because of his play, but it was also because Teske, Wagner’s backup, picked up two early fouls.

So Wagner played 19 first-half minutes, getting a double-double in the frame with 11 points and 11 boards. If he hadn’t, the Wolverines, who shot just 29 percent from the field and 15.4 from three, may not have been within reaching distance of Loyola.

As Wagner jogged up the tunnel at halftime, his jersey was so drenched with sweat it was nearly see-through. He finished with 36 minutes, tied for the most he’s ever played in a game without overtime.

“He’ll be able to hold up, but we’ve gotta get him a lot of rest tomorrow,” Beilein said. “… But Moe, we played him a lot. We played him a lot — probably too many minutes — but I thought we had to to win the game, so we can play Monday. But he’ll have a day of rest. He’s pretty good at that.”

For all the new sides to Wagner’s game that Friday’s performance showed, there was all the old stuff, too.

He still exhibited the deep range, going 3-for-7 from beyond the arc, and he still was his goofy self, flexing and celebrating for the crowd. He even leapt over the CBS announcing team at one point.

For now, Wagner says he’s exhausted, and for good reason.

In a game that many expected to be decided by the matchup between the big men, Wagner came out on top. And in a season when the Wolverines have looked to Wagner time and time again to provide a spark, he came through again.

On Friday, the old and new parts of Wagner combined to form the best version of him yet. Despite the sweat and the grind and the weight of his team on his shoulders and a near collision with an announcers table, they couldn’t take him off the floor.