Michigan coach John Beilein wanted to take Moritz Wagner off the floor.
In crunch time against Texas on Tuesday, Beilein thought senior forward Mark Donnal would be the more viable defensive option to prevent the Wolverines from suffering their second heartbreaking loss in seven days.
But assistant coach Billy Donlon had a different idea. Donlon convinced Beilein to keep Wagner in the lineup down the stretch because the sophomore forward was hedging the ball screen well.
In return for his confidence, Beilein received the ultimate payoff.
Down one, the Longhorns inbounded the ball to Eric Davis Jr. on the right wing with 9.5 seconds left. He dribbled around the arc and down the lane and — as he revealed after the game — expected the play to give him an open layup.
He was met by Wagner instead. Rather than sticking with his original man, Shaquille Cleare, Wagner switched onto Davis after noticing the Texas guard wasn’t even looking in the direction of his rolling big man.
Wagner let Davis pull up for the contested shot, waited for gravity to start pulling him down and then blocked the attempt with just under six seconds left.
At the end of it all, Beilein’s faith in his assistant’s advice put Michigan on the right side of a nail biter.
And his faith didn’t go unnoticed by Wagner either. In a young season where Wagner is still working on his defensive game, calling his block an “instinct play” in the postgame interview was a sign of progress. After all, his play on the defensive end has essentially been the only reason he isn’t averaging more than his 18.8 minutes per game.
“Obviously it takes a lot of experience, and it helps me a lot that I know that people trust me out there,” Wagner said Tuesday night. “And that not every mistake (means) I’ve got to think about everything, that I can play with my instincts. That helps me a lot.”
Once junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had secured the ball and earned a trip to the charity stripe after the block, the Wolverines had all but put the game on ice. Wagner wasn’t shy about his excitement.
The 6-foot-11 forward marched to the scorer’s table like a man possessed, fist-pumping and chest-pounding his way down the sideline as he screamed toward the Maize Rage section that had just erupted into pandemonium.
The exuberant enthusiasm is nothing new from Wagner, though the moment felt different given that he was the hero of the night. But to him, it was a lot simpler than that, and to Beilein, this team is going to need that spark.
“I’m just so happy when we win,” Wagner said with a smile. “I can’t really control that.”
Added Beilein: “This is a team that their personality does not exude that type of excitement. We’re a little bit laid back. We don’t want it to show. … Zak Irvin gives us a lot of that. But after that, there’s a big dropoff of guys that it’s not natural to them. Moe, it’s very natural to him, and it’s very helpful to the team.”
And in case the energy and game-clinching block weren’t enough, Wagner put on the same offensive show that has been in his arsenal since his freshman year to win the game for Michigan on the other end as well.
With 25.2 seconds on the clock, and the Wolverines down one, senior wing Zak Irvin got the ball at the top of the key. Wagner set a screen and rolled to the rim as Irvin dribbled to the right block and went up for a doubly contested reverse layup.
The ball bounced off the backboard, but Wagner had been wedging his man the entire time. He corralled the rebound and kissed the ball off the glass as he was falling under the basket, giving Michigan its final lead with 20 seconds remaining.
“I got the rebound and didn’t really see the basket to be honest,” Wagner said. “Trusted myself a little bit, and it went in.”
After the game, Texas coach Shaka Smart praised Wagner’s versatility on both ends of the court, even going so far as to call him the best player on the floor.
But in reality, the best player on the floor almost sat out the final minutes in the first place. Without Donlon’s advice, it would have been Donnal checking in during crunch time.
Maybe Donnal would have hit the go-ahead basket and rejected Davis’ shot, too, but there’s no way for Beilein to know.
What he does know, though: he finally went with Wagner in winning time, and boy, did it look like he was meant to be there.