Wojo: Moe’s show hitting a crescendo for Michigan
San Antonio — He was everywhere, doing everything. He was down low, he was at the top of the arc. He was on the glass and on the floor, and in one memorable flash, he was diving into the laps of the TV broadcast crew.
This was Moe Wagner at his best, seizing the biggest moment on the biggest stage, with one of the finest performances you’ll ever witness in a Final Four matchup. His timing was impeccable too, because for much of Saturday night, Michigan was not at its best, locked in a tedious battle with feisty Loyola-Chicago.
For long stretches, neither team could make a shot, nothing was separating them, nothing except the big guy with the ever-expanding grin and ever-expanding game. Thanks to Wagner’s 24-point, 15-rebound show, the Wolverines finally ousted the Cinderella-ish Ramblers 69-57 and advanced to the national championship game Monday night against No. 1 seed Villanova.
That will be the biggest test of all, as Villanova stomped Kansas 95-79, and the Wolverines can’t shoot erratically again and win it all. But at this stage, would you be surprised if they dug up another way to hang around and get their chance?
For all their defensive prowess, you knew at some point they’d need something like this, and Wagner was the leading candidate to deliver, especially against the smaller Ramblers. Outside of him and Charles Matthews, who scored 17, the Wolverines labored against Loyola-Chicago’s defense, and we’ve seen these offensive lulls a few times in the Tournament. The backcourt of Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman shot a combined two-for-17. But hey, no sweat, not with the Wolverines’ remarkable ability to ramp up their sweat-soaked defense.
And not when Wagner plays like this, attacking the glass (six offensive rebounds) and the glasses. Late in the game, he chased for the ball and leaped over the broadcast table, nearly knocking over Jim Nantz, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery, accidentally breaking Raftery’s glasses.
“I told him, I hope you can afford a second pair of glasses, I feel bad, but I hope you can read this weekend,” Wagner said with a laugh. “Honestly, I just tried to do my job. I’m very proud of this team, to let them score 57 points, that’s the key stat.”
With this team, it’s always the key stat. After a sloppy first half, the Wolverines trailed 29-22, had precisely one assist and eight turnovers, and were two-for-13 on 3-pointers. Astonishing, really. Early in the second half, they fell behind by 10, and Loyola-Chicago’s Sister Jean serenade seemed destined to continue.
No gnashing of teeth
But if we’ve learned one thing about Michigan during tournament play, it doesn’t cave to frustration when shots aren’t falling, because there’s always a fallback. Of their five NCAA Tournament victories, four have been like this, holding opponents well below their offensive norms. During a withering 19-4 stretch, they turned a 47-42 deficit into a 61-51 lead, and as the score mounted, Sister Jean, the 98-year-old chaplain and symbol of the Ramblers’ underdog spirit, quietly exited her courtside perch.
Besides his TBS crew wipeout, Wagner’s other exclamation came with five minutes left, when he tipped in a rebound and drew a foul, then delivered his classic exuberant arm-flex. It took a while, but the Wolverines indeed flexed their muscles.
“Moe was huge, on the glass specifically, and we haven’t always seen him do that,” Duncan Robinson said. “To see him really dominate the game that way was pretty cool. He just feeds off the energy, he’s a very emotional person, and on a stage like this, it brings out the best in him. For him to do this is no surprise to any of us.”
Somebody had to bring out the best in the Wolverines, and it wasn’t only Wagner. According to players, John Beilein delivered one of his louder halftime lashings. Freshman Jordan Poole spoke plenty too, and sparked the second-half surge with aggressive slashes to the basket and his own exuberance.
The Wolverines finished with 10 steals and forced the Ramblers into 17 turnovers, and eventually broke down the upstarts from Chicago.
“The message was, just stay positive,” Poole said. “We’re way too good to be in a situation like this (at halftime). We felt like it’s not the other team that kind of gets us rattled, it’s more beating ourselves. Coach B came in here yelling and was super excited, but we’re a pretty chill team, not banging our heads against the locker. We’re pretty calm and cool and relaxed.”
For the most part, they are. But that’s not how Wagner is, all motion and emotion and noise. Loyola-Chicago only had one big guy, 6-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig, and the kid was tough on offense. But Wagner took full advantage elsewhere. By halftime, he already had a double-double, and then his teammates joined the fray, finally attacking the basket as the game wore on.
“Wagner got the ball out of that double-team real quick and hit it, and then he hit another one, and then Robinson hit another one,” Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said. “They stepped up. That’s what great teams do.”
Hill, the former Piston newly named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, called Wagner’s game one of the greatest Final Four performances ever, and by the numbers, it was.
The Wolverines could only nod their heads in affirmation, because they’ve seen Wagner do variations of these dramatics, in games and practices, for three years.
“He’s a special kid,” Beilein said. “I’ve been coaching a long time, and Moe’s going to go in that special category with a few others. … This is the way it is every day. He brings energy to everything he does. Everything.”
Who knows how much he can bring Monday night against a Villanova team that looks almost unstoppable. Wagner admitted he was spent after playing 36 minutes, and outside Michigan’s locker room, the toll was written on the players. Matthews stretched out on the back of a golf cart with a towel wrapped around his head, awaiting transport to the news conference, and said to no one in particular, “I’m tired after that one, man.”
Wagner slowly came striding up and hopped on the cart too. Only 40 minutes remain now, and the Wolverines (33-7) officially carry the longest winning streak in the nation (14 games) into the championship clash. They’ll be underdogs, of course, and they’ll need a better start, of course.
They’ll need their backcourt to provide more, and Matthews to keep ratcheting his offensive productivity. And they’ll probably need Wagner to muster another monstrous effort, on the stage he loves.
“I’m exhausted,” Wagner said. “To be honest, it’s just another 40 minutes, and as simple as it sounds, as weird as it sounds, we didn’t come here to lose.”
More glass to clean. One more glass ceiling to break.
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