As Moritz Wagner walked off the court on Saturday, he pointed up to the rafters of the Breslin Center. There, in a small, maize section, stood a few rows of Michigan fans who had made the commute to East Lansing.
Wagner had just scored a career-high 27 points to help the Wolverines beat No. 4 Michigan State, 82-72. He did it in a bevy of ways, from 3-point shooting to behind-the-back dribble moves to fall-away baseline jumpers.
And Michigan needed all of it. It needed Wagner to be the same player he had been earlier in the season, and Wagner delivered in spades.
With about 12 minutes left in the first half, the Spartans looked poised to go on a run. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. blocked two shots on the defensive end before throwing down a vicious, one-handed dunk to give the Spartans the lead.
Moments later, as the crowd exploded around him, Wagner drilled an open three. He shushed the crowd as he backpedaled down the court.
In the second half, there was a similar situation. With just over eight minutes left, Michigan State took another lead thanks to a pair of free throws from Jackson. Again, the crowd crescendoed. Again, Wagner hit a 3-pointer to retake the lead.
All game long, when the Wolverines needed a spark, they looked to Wagner. And all game long, Wagner provided it. In a hostile environment, Wagner ripped the Spartans’ hearts out, and he did so with a smile on his face.
“We actually used to call him the Grayson Allen of the Big Ten, being that everybody kinda hates him,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “But he loves that role, and he plays it well, coming in here and having a big game like he did. And we’re just happy to have him.”
The performance was even more eye-catching when you consider that it wasn’t a certainty that Wagner would play at all.
After re-tweaking an ankle injury on Thursday, Michigan coach John Beilein said he wasn’t sure if Wagner would be in Saturday’s lineup.
Wagner claimed he always knew he was going to play. Either way, knowing that there was some pain involved in Wagner’s performance makes it all-the-more impressive.
“That stuff happens, dude,” Wagner said. “With an ankle injury, you can’t wait until it’s gone or 100 percent. You’ve just got to get used to it. Sometimes you re-tweak it, but that stuff happens, man.”
Added Beilein: “He had a lot of courage to come in and play, because he basically re-injured the same injury, but he didn’t look like it was bad today.”
Maybe it helped that this was a big game. When Wagner was on the fence to play earlier in the season, he sat out in games against Detroit and Alabama A&M — games the Wolverines would have won with or without Wagner.
On Saturday in a rivalry game against a top-5 team, sitting wasn’t much of an option.
And it would be easy for Wagner to brush off the matchup as just another game. He didn’t grow up around college basketball rivalries like this. He wasn’t always familiar with the passion or hatred for Michigan State that fans and other players feel. But he understands that the passion is there. For him, that’s enough.
That’s why his last action before leaving the court was a point.
“This game means so much for the people up there that you don’t see down here, and all of the Michigan family out there,” Wagner said, pointing again to the section where the Michigan fans sat. “Obviously, me being from Germany, it’s a little different, but for these people you want to play your heart out. We did that today.”