Wolverines’ Wagner embracing heel role on the road

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

University Park, Pa. — Moritz Wagner heard the boos raining down on him.

He heard the public address announcer at the Bryce Jordan Center mispronouncing his first name.

He took exception to an inadvertent shot or two he took to the face and was showered with even more jeers from the spirited crowd.

In other words, Michigan’s 72-63 win at Penn State on Wednesday was just another night and another stop on Wagner’s recent Big Ten villain tour — a role the junior center has thrived under in recent weeks.

In Michigan’s last three road games, Wagner is averaging 19.3 points and shooting 60.6 percent (20-for-33) from the field, a healthy step up from his season average of 15 points and 53.4 percent shooting away from Crisler Center.

“For some reason they hate me everywhere, but I just play,” Wagner said. “I don't think about that type of stuff. I remember last year people were asking me why my shooting numbers were so low on the road and now it's the other way around.

“So, that might be a coincidence, but obviously I don't look like I'm not enjoying this out there. I’m definitely having fun.”

Wagner scored a team-high 20 points at Northwestern and poured in 20 more at Wisconsin, which marked just the second time all season he recorded back-to-back 20-point performances.

Against Penn State, he didn’t lead the team in scoring, but tallied 18 points (5-for-9 shooting), tied a season-high with four made 3-pointers, and most importantly changed the complexion of the game when everything seemed to be unraveling for Michigan in the second half.

After the Nittany Lions roared back and wiped out Michigan’s 13-point lead to go up by three, Wagner started the critical sequence by burying a deep ball to knot it up and quiet the frenzied crowd.

Then two possessions later, he fired himself up after knocking down another 3-pointer that put Michigan back in front for good, triggering another chorus of boo birds from the Penn State faithful.

“He's one of the guys that gets himself going and he obviously knows a lot of people hate him,” freshman Jordan Poole said. “He's the most hated guy in the Big Ten or whatever it is. He loves stuff like that.”

And all that negative energy is seemingly fueling Wagner’s game and elevating it to another level at the right time, with the grand stages of the Big Ten tournament and NCAA Tournament right around the corner.

"I'm getting my homework done now for the next four weeks," Wagner said with a grin. "I love postseason. I love the bright lights. We all do. It's going to be fun.

"We're not afraid of anybody."

Rim rattler

Poole has recorded his fair share of highlight plays during his first season at Michigan.

But he might have a new No. 1 after his emphatic and-1 dunk over Penn State forward Julian Moore in the first half.

Following a Penn State turnover, Poole raced up the court and got the ball near the 3-point line, where he took one dribble before going up, absorbing contact and throwing down the one-handed jam over a contesting Moore.

“I thought I was going to be wide open because I saw Moe block him off for a little bit, but I didn't see the big man,” Poole said. “I kind of went up and just put it in there and he happened to foul me.”

Poole didn’t hesitate to celebrate afterward as he walked over and began mean mugging into the camera under the basket.

“I definitely knew the camera was right there,” he said. “I kind of been dreaming for this for a while and I finally got it. I knew exactly where to go.”

Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said he was a bit surprised when Poole pulled that type of dunk out of the bag.

“I didn't know he had that quite honestly,” Robinson said. “I knew he would try, but I didn't think he was going to convert it. That was pretty funny.”

Slam dunks

After Penn State opened the second half shooting 5-for-6 from the field, Michigan switched from its man defense to a zone around the 15-minute mark.

From that point on, the Nittany Lions shot 9-for-25 and had an eight-minute stretch where they missed nine of 11 shots.

“It's good to have it in your back pocket,” Robinson said of the zone defense. “Obviously, it’s not our primary defense, but to throw a different look at a team that had a stretch where they were kind of getting comfortable I thought was a good call.”

…Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finished with five assists and a season-high four turnovers in 38 minutes.

Abdur-Rahkman entered the game leading the nation with a 6.2 assist turnover ratio, and had committed four turnovers in the previous nine games combined.

…Freshman point guard Eli Brooks played two minutes and recorded his first points since Dec. 16, 2017 with a first-half layup.