Final Four 2018: Michigan makes it to the NCAA title game after rallying to end Loyola-Chicago's Cinderella run
The Wolverines weren't at their best on Saturday night, but Moritz Wagner's rarely looked better
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Moritz Wagner is why.
The Wolverines' junior forward and best overall player had the best game of his career vs. Loyola-Chicago in Saturday night's national semifinal. Wagner carried Michigan to a win with a 24-point, 15-rebound effort. Third-seeded Michigan won 69-57.
Wagner became the first player since 1983 to have at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal. Houston's Akeem Olajuwon in 1983 and Indiana State's Larry Bird in 1979 are the only other players to achieve the feat. Now Wagner joins them.
"Wow," Wagner said. "If you put it like that, that's it's probably cool. But to be honest, I kept looking possession by possession, we had trouble scoring 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."
The Wolverines (33-7) ended 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago's Cinderella run -- and did so after trailing 29-22 at the half. Double-digit seeds are now 0-5 all time in the Final Four. It was an amazing story, and we won't soon forget Sister Jean and the Ramblers, but once again a power-conference team has come out on top vs. the small-school underdog on the biggest stage in college basketball.
"They have so much to be proud of," Ramblers coach Porter Moser said. "They changed the perception of a program. They changed the perception of when you say Loyola-Chicago, for men's basketball, they changed that, the perception of it. They impacted so many lives around not only starting with our campus and then it spread on high character kids playing their tails off unselfishly. I couldn't be more proud and saddened that this is over with these kids. And this group, high character and fun group to be around, than I've ever been around."
The Ramblers (32-6) did themselves in with 10 second-half turnovers. Michigan, which boasts the best defense of the four teams that came to San Antonio, dug in and turned the Ramblers into bumblers at points. Loyola-Chicago went five consecutive possessions at one point, keying Michigan's game-changing 17-2 run.
The Wolverines, who have won 14 consecutive games, will play the winner of Villanova-Kansas on Monday night.
John Beilein's team got the game to level on a Wagner 3-pointer, right in front of the Wolverines bench, that tied the game at 47 in the second half. On the ensuing possession, Jordan Poole's two made free throws gave the Wolverines their first lead, with 6:20 to go, since the 7:53 of the first half.
Clayton Custer, the Missouri Valley Player of the Year, finished with 15 points. Afterward, Custer and his longtime friend, Ben Richardson, were in tears as they walked arm-in-arm off the floor. Moser greeted them enthusiastically with a hug of encouragement before stepping off the stage and hustling back to the locker room.
"It's not going to sink in yet," Richardson said. "It hurts to have this be the last one. We wish that it could have ended better. We believe that we could have gone on. But I'm proud of myself. I'm proud of each and every one of these guys, and I'm proud of Clay.
Nothing made me happier than taking the floor with him and compete with him, having him join me in Chicago was a dream come true, and we did a lot of things that people probably didn't think that we could do. And we proved a lot of people wrong. And I love that guy to death, and we'll never forget this."
The Ramblers looked good halfway through the game. Loyola-Chicago was able to overcome trouble early after trailing by as many as eight in the first half, with Michigan up 12-4. In fact, Loyola's seven-point halftime lead (29-22) materialized despite the Ramblers loitering for seven-plus minutes without a field goal. Michigan had its opportunities, its chance, a wide-open window. Saturday night marked the first time this season the Ramblers lost after holding a halftime lead.
Loyola came back with a 21-7 run. It need another kind of burst in the second half, but that never came. Michigan closed the game on a 32-12 run in the final 11:25.
"It snowballed on us," Moser said. "They close the gaps. We always talk about getting the domino going. They closed the gap of opportunity really fast."
The Ramblers went up against a top-three defense in the country and wound up making just one of their 10 attempts from deep.
Michigan's now 7-1 all time in national semifinals. The team's 33 wins are a school record. A win on Monday night would give the Wolverines its second NCAA title after they won national championship in 1989.
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