Bob Wojnowski, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News break down Michigan's Final Four 69-57 victory over Loyola-Chicago.
San Antonio — Before Michigan took the court in the second half of Saturday’s national semifinal game, Isaiah Livers gave Jordan Poole a freshman-to-freshman pep talk.
“He just said be aggressive and do what I do,” Poole said of the brief conversation.
Well, the message was received loud and clear as Poole played a key role in a second-half rally that helped push third-seeded Michigan past No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, 69-57, and into Monday’s national title game against No. 1 Villanova at the Alamodome.
After Michigan trailed by as much as 10 and had a hard time getting into an offensive groove over the first 30 minutes, Poole got the momentum rolling in its direction with by attacking Loyola’s small-ball lineup.
But he didn’t do it from beyond the arc, where Michigan shot 25 percent (7-for-28) and struggled most of the night. Instead, he aggressively drove to the rim and helped ignite the game-changing 17-2 run that put the Wolverines up for good.
“Being in a situation like this, everybody on the team they say I live for moments like this and I love the bright lights,” Poole said. “But I feel like I've worked so hard to be on this stage where I can capitalize and show who I am as a player.
“I just know whenever I'm given an opportunity and I have so much confidence in myself I'm going to go out there and get a good spark going and bring positive energy.”
With Michigan trailing 45-37 with 11:25 to go, Poole checked in and Michigan coach John Beilein immediately drew up a play for him that led to a layup.
Then after snatching a defensive rebound, he went coast-to-coast for another layup that cut the deficit to three before he knocked down two free throws to give Michigan a 49-47 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish with 6:20 to go.
Duncan Robinson, Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole Matt Charboneau
“He was great. I didn't think he was playing like a freshman at all,” fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said. “He's been good for us all year. He's had stretches where he has single-handedly carried us.
“For him to come on this stage and do that, I think that epitomizes who he is. He's unconscious…I don't think he thinks enough to be scared of the moment. He does what he's always done his whole life, which is just hoop and put the ball in the basket."
For Poole, who finished with seven points in 12 minutes, it all came after he gave a rousing halftime speech and spoke it into existence when Michigan found itself trailing by seven at the break.
“I said Moe (Wagner) wasn't being able to knock shots down but everything is going to come. He's a really good player and everything is going to fall for him,” Poole said. “I said Duncan is an elite level shooter and being able to have faith like that and work so hard, he's going to knock shots down. I said X (Zavier Simpson) isn't having the best game but as soon as he steps on that floor, he's going to lock up the best player. It's as simple as that.
“Ham (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) is going to be a big part of this because he's a senior, he's going to get to the basket, he's going to start finishing his layups. His shot wasn't falling, so I knew he was going to take it to the basket and find a way to get himself going. Then Charles (Matthews) is going to continue being aggressive and put our team on the back. And I said when I get in the game, I'm going to bring a spark. I'm going to be positive. I'm going to make shots and kind of get in a situation to get us going and it worked."
Simpson had his worst offensive outing in months, but didn’t let it affect his play on the defensive end.
He was held scoreless for the first time since Feb. 14 and finished 0-for-6 from the field (0-for-3 on 3-pointers) with four turnovers and three assists in 26 minutes.
"Sometimes it’s like that. You just got to be able to stay locked in,” Simpson said. “If I go on the bench and am pouting and mad, I come back in and I could ruin this game for us. I'm just proud of myself and I'll give myself a pat on the back for just being positive.
“On the big stage, everybody doesn’t have a good game. It's not about what happened, it's about how you bounced back. We're competing for something way bigger than myself and this team.”
Following the game, Poole went out of his way to track down Sister Jean, Loyola’s 98-year-old chaplain turned media sensation, after she was wheeled off the floor before the game ended.
The reason? He wanted to shake her hand and pay his respects.
“I told her I was a big fan,” Poole said. “She had their back the entire time and everybody talks about them being the Cinderella story, and she was getting a lot of attention.
“But being able to build a fan base how she did, and being able to have Loyola have so many fans out here and travel well, and I just thought the entire concept and everything that she brought to the table, and being able to have such a big impact on the team, being in a situation like this, I thought it was amazing.”
Abdur-Rahkman played in his 143rd game of his career, which broke a program record he had shared with Jordan Morgan (2011-14) and Zak Irvin (2014-17).
“It's humbling but it's also like damn, I couldn't be one and done or two years and done,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “It's not meant for everybody to leave early. I paid my dues and just worked and continued to get better and better. It's a humbling experience because of my journey here.”
…Through its first four NCAA Tournament games, Loyola averaged 7.5 made 3-pointers per game and shot 52.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Michigan held Loyola to 1-for-10 from 3-point range, which were season lows for makes and shooting percentage in a game for the Ramblers.
“Our goal is not let people get the number that they get,” Beilein said. “They held us under our number, but we really held them under their number.”
…When asked about the possibility of playing Loyola in the future, Beilein said he’s always looking for opportunities to play a home-and-home series.
“I would always consider that,” he said. “If Sister Jean asks me, I might even have a better chance of it happening.”
…Michigan improved to 9-0 this season when wearing its maize jerseys.
Michigan vs. Villanova
Tip-off: 9:20 p.m. Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/WWJ 950
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 33-7, No. 1 seed Villanova 35-4