INDIANAPOLIS — Seventeen agonizingly long seconds stood between the Michigan men’s basketball team and victory as DJ Wilson stepped to the line for two crucial free throws.
A miss by the redshirt sophomore forward on the front end of the one-and-one would have given the Cardinals ample time to tie the game — or even win it.
But Wilson was ready for the moment, sinking both shots to keep Michigan up by four.
Louisville, though, wasn’t ready to give up, as guard Donovan Mitchell — who led the Cardinals with 19 points — sliced his way down the court to close the gap to two.
On the ensuing inbounds, again, the Wolverines got the ball to Wilson, and he was quickly fouled. Just eight seconds had elapsed between his last trip to the charity stripe, and the result was the same.
Wilson sank both free throws, finally icing the game as Michigan moved on to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen with a 73-69 win over Louisville at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
In most situations this season, it has been the guards who have received that inbounds pass. Whether it is senior guard Derrick Walton, senior wing Zak Irvin or junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman, the Wolverines’ guards have been the ones to go to the line to ice the game.
But on this night, it was Wilson who came up clutch.
“I saw a gap in their press late in the second half,” Wilson said. “(Irvin) luckily inbounded me the ball, and I knocked (the free throws) down.”
That was the theme of the game. The Cardinals defensive game plan going into the contest was to not switch on Michigan’s screens in order to stay out on the shooters. But with the length of Louisville’s big men, the Cardinals ended up switching anyway, effectively neutralizing Walton and company in the process.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino regularly rotates centers Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud and forwards Jaylen Johnson and Ray Spalding, and the four players were great at defending Michigan’s guards.
When Louisville switched on ball screens, its big men made it tough for the Wolverines’ guards to operate. They also crashed the offensive glass all game long, making life difficult for Michigan, nearly shifting the balance of the game in the process.
“They’re long and they’re quick,” said junior wing Duncan Robinson. “They move well for guys their size, and they have such great length. It’s easier for them than other bigs.”
But at halftime, Michigan coach John Beilein told his big men to slip off the ball screen, and that was the key to the Wolverines’ success in the second half.
It gave the Wolverines’ big men a chance to feast, and they took full advantage, winding down Louisville’s eight-point halftime lead to win.
Wilson finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting, but he wasn’t even the star of the show for Michigan.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, who had scored a combined 11 points in his last two games, exploited Louisville off the pick-and-roll on his way to a game-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting.
“We’ve been working a lot on switching defenses,” Wagner said. “DJ and I have the confidence to do our thing. (Louisville) stayed with the shooters and gave us a lot of room, and we were able to finish plays.”
Added Wilson: “We could catch them in the middle of a screen and hit Moe or myself on a roll to the basket. Moe benefited from that a lot in the second half. I think he had three or four baskets from that.”
It wasn’t just Wilson and Wagner who had success — Michigan’s third big man, redshirt junior Mark Donnal, also had some success off the bench.
Donnal hit a crucial three early in the game to keep Louisville at bay, while also providing cover for Wagner when he was in foul trouble.
“It’s great having a ‘5’ like that coming off the bench that can stretch the defense,” Wilson said. “He got a block, a couple rebounds and kept them off the glass. And then he hit that big time three. Mark is just as good of a shooter as anybody on the team.”
The ironic thing about Sunday’s game was that many viewed Louisville’s frontcourt as its biggest advantage over Michigan going into the game. The Wolverines, though, made sure that wasn’t the case.
In the bigger picture, the Wolverines’ seventh straight win came in a much different fashion than their last six.
Last weekend in the Big Ten Tournament, it was Michigan’s defense and guard play that led it to victory. Friday, it was the Wolverines’ 3-point shooting that led them to a victory over Oklahoma State.
Against Louisville, it was all big men.
“Next man up” — it’s a sentiment that the team has preached all year long. And Sunday, on the biggest stage thus far, they proved exactly why.
“We don’t see ourselves as a shooting team,” Wagner said. “We know we can shoot, but that’s not the only thing we can do.”