BROOKLYN, N.Y. — At the end of the first half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Notre Dame, Moritz Wagner looked unstoppable.
To cap off a half in which he had already scored four points in under five minutes — no other Wolverine big man had any — the freshman forward took a pass from Zak Irvin and gently laid it off the backboard. The ball rolled around the rim as the first-half buzzer sounded before flushing through the net to give Michigan a commanding 12-point lead at the break.
Wagner thumped his chest twice at mid-court before jumping and colliding in celebration with junior guard Andrew Dakich.
After the game was over, though, that collision wasn’t the one everyone was talking about.
With 5:39 remaining in the game and the Wolverines and Fighting Irish deadlocked at 56, Wagner drove to the rim looking for another big play. The 6-foot-10 German crashed into a defender near the arc under the basket before making the layup and drawing a whistle, setting up what appeared to be a huge tiebreaking and-1 opportunity for Michigan.
But the call was an offensive foul on Wagner, and though Michigan coach John Beilein didn’t have a clear view of the play, the Wolverines’ bench was incensed — their fiery words of protest earned them a warning from the officials, and senior guard Spike Albrecht had to be restrained.
“Those are three good officials — they did really good jobs,” Beilein said. “I think we took four charges on them, at least. That might be the only one that we had called on (us).”
It may have been the only one, but it helped contribute to the huge momentum swing of the game. The Wolverines had already blown their huge lead, but with the game tied and both teams trading blows, it was still anyone’s contest to win.
Two minutes later, with the game deadlocked again, Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem scored five straight points to build a lead the Fighting Irish would never relinquish. Wagner, meanwhile, returned to the bench after the call — his fourth foul of the game — and didn’t reenter the game until the final minute.
The freshman, as confident and dominant as he looked in the first frame, suddenly appeared panicked and defeated. It wasn’t even his first offensive foul of the half — just 10 minutes earlier, he attempted to dribble to the rim in a panic after a play broke down and forced another charge, one a lot more obvious than the one that came later.
“It’s really not my call,” Wagner said after the game, sadly looking down at his feet. “The ref called it. Gotta get through that — haven’t seen it on film yet, but it’s not my call to judge that.”
Many of the Michigan fans at the Barclays Center agreed with the Wolverines’ bench that the play should have been called a blocking foul on Notre Dame, and Beilein himself admitted he wondered if the Fighting Irish defender had been in the restricted area below the basket. But his concern after the loss wasn’t with the call — it was with Wagner, who was clearly upset about how everything unfolded.
As one of the most visibly emotional players on the floor — whether things are going well or not — Wagner drew his coach’s praise for the effort that he gave Friday night.
“He wants to win so badly,” Beilein said. “We’ve just gotta get him to move on to the next play. Move on to next year. You could see that he’s giving us great energy — he’s got a great future here, at 18 years old still. I just loved what I saw from him, it gives us great hope.”