SAN ANTONIO — Loyola’s bid to become the first double-digit seed to play for the national title ended in heartbreak.
Moritz Wagner rallied Michigan from a 10-point second-half deficit, halting the Ramblers’ improbable run to the Final Four and sending the Wolverines to Monday’s championship game.
Wagner was the hero of Michigan’s 69-57 victory as he scored 24 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and played the biggest role in the Wolverines’ comeback. It was his corner 3-pointer with 6:56 to go that tied the game at 47. It was his tip-in and free throw minutes later that suddenly extended Michigan’s lead to seven.
Michigan finished the game on a 38-16 surge to strike midnight on Cinderella. The Wolverines shot 57.1 percent from the field after halftime and their vaunted defense forced 10 Loyola second-half turnovers.
Michigan advances to the national title game, where it will face either Villanova or Kansas. Loyola will have to settle for stringing together one of the most unlikely Final Four runs in NCAA tournament history.
“I had a lot of easy offensive rebounds and they just happened to occur,” Wagner said after the game. “I knew they were trying to punch us – first of all, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit; their set plays are incredible. Tough to guard. And their big man [Cameron Krutwig] does an incredible job down there as a freshman.
“So we had to cover that somehow defensively, and I tried to do my job, tried not to foul and stay solid, build walls and grab rebounds. And it worked out.”
At the end of a scandal-tainted season overshadowed by the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, Loyola’s stunning run provided a timely, if temporary, antidote. This was a feel-good story woven by a well-traveled coach, some low-wattage recruits and a 98-year-old nun.
Porter Moser, the architect of this ascending mid-major power, earned $420,000 this season, about 15 percent of counterpart John Beilein’s annual salary. Clayton Custer was the only Loyola player to receive scholarship offers from high-major programs out of high school, and he lasted just a year at Iowa State before transferring in search of more significant playing time.
“They have so much to be proud of,” Moser said, referring to his team. “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.”
If Michigan entered Saturday’s game typecast as the power-conference villain aiming to halt Cinderella Loyola’s charmed run, the role wasn’t a perfect fit. The Wolverines themselves are a team that has defied expectations to advance within one win of John Beilein’s first national title.
Michigan started this season buried in the “others receiving votes” section of the AP Top 25 after losing three of its four leading scorers from last year’s 26-win Sweet 16 team. Among the stars of this Wolverines team include a point guard who was benched early in the season, a shooting guard no other high-majors wanted, a wing who wasn’t good enough to play at Kentucky and a sixth man who started his college career at a Division III school.
What has propelled Michigan to the brink of a national title has been the program’s increased emphasis on defense. A Wolverines program traditionally known for its dynamic, immaculately spaced offense has evolved into one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams this season thanks to the influence of assistant coach Luke Yaklich and a newfound commitment from the players.
Michigan entered Saturday’s national semifinal fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, 70 spots higher than the program’s average during Beilein’s tenure. A blistering outside shooting night carried the Wolverines to a Sweet 16 rout of Texas A&M, but their other three NCAA tournament victories en route to San Antonio were defense-driven.
Loyoa presented a unique challenge at both ends of the floor for Michigan on Saturday with its disciplined defense and patient motion offense.
“They’re good – in the NCAA tournament, everybody is on a neutral floor,” Beilein said. “They don’t get the opportunity to play home games against schools like Michigan. And they probably never will. And so as a result, they’re good but people don’t know how good they are until you see them out there.
“So they stopped being a Cinderella when they got to the [Sweet 16], to me, as an 11 seed. The NCAA committee has such a difficult time doing this and everybody can’t be a 1 through 4, but there’s so little difference between the 4 seed and the 13 seed. It’s much smaller a difference than you would think, the numbers.”
A pro-Loyola crowd at the Alamodome roared with approval on Saturday night when the Ramblers overtook Michigan midway through the first half and built a seven-point lead by halftime. Loyola did most of its damage in the paint as Cameron Krutwig overpowered Michigan’s big men on the low block and Marques Townes gashed the Wolverines’ vaunted defense off the dribble or on off-ball cuts to the rim.
Michigan, the 274th-best offensive rebounding team in the country, only stayed afloat because of the offensive glass. The Wolverines missed 11 of 13 threes and struggled to get into the paint off the dribble, but they scored 13 second-chance points, eight by Moritz Wagner alone.
Loyola extended its lead to as many as 10 early in the first half before Duncan Robinson and Charles Matthews finally began to provide Wagner the support he had previously lacked. Robinson’s second 3-pointer of the half pulled Michigan to within three, setting off roars from the maize-and-blue clad sections of the crowd and prompting a Porter Moser timeout.
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