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Wagner Leads Wolverines to Title Game, Ends Loyola Chicago’s Ride

By Mike Williams | @MikeWritesSport

Sports Capital Journalism Program

SAN ANTONIO — There was a point in the second half, in the first Final Four game the Loyola Chicago Ramblers played in 55 years, when it looked as if they could extend their ride to one last unforgettable game. But that was before Michigan’s Moe Wagner took over, his career night leading the Wolverines to a 69-57 victory and a chance to play for a national championship against Villanova.

Wagner’s 24 points and career-high 15 rebounds helped Michigan extend its school-record victory total to 33, including the last 14 straight. The Wolverines, 33-7, reached the championship game for the seventh time in school history and the second in the last six tournaments in an effort to match their 1989 national title.

There were other important contributions, with senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman experiencing an uncharacteristic struggle with seven points on 2-for-11 shooting. Sophomore guard Charles Matthews scored 17 points with three steals. Freshman guard Jordan Poole came off the bench to score seven points in 12 minutes. The Wolverines made 57.1 percent of their shots in the second half.

But more than anyone else, that chance to play for a championship is due to Wagner, the junior forward whose 10-of-16 shooting helped Michigan build a decisive 19-6 advantage in second-chance points, many in the first half when the Wolverines made just 29 percent of their shots. “I honestly just tried to do my job,” Wagner said. “The shots were falling the second half. It’s a lot more fun when the ball goes through the net.”

The Ramblers, 32-6, saw the end of their nation-leading 14-game winning streak, the school’s longest since winning 19 straight in the 1984-85 season, the last time they made the tournament. Loyola held a 10-point lead with 14:08 to play. Michigan outscored Loyola Chicago, 32-12, over the final 11:25.

“I liked a lot of things we were doing defensively on him,” Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser said of Wagner. “…What happened was he got some offensive rebounds. And that was some of the things you give up with our size, and he got down on the block.”

Wagner’s total of 24 points was three less than his career high set on Jan. 13. “He brings energy,” said Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons. “When he gets that and-one and does that thing with his arms, that’s my man right there.”

Michigan’s defense locked down the Ramblers early in the first half, holding them without scoring for 5:30 on 0-for-7 shooting. However, their offense depended on Wagner as he accounted for five of Michigan’s nine field goals in the first half.

The ineffectiveness of Loyola’s offense led Moser to call a timeout at the 12:38 mark, 38 seconds before the regularly-scheduled media timeout would have been available.

The Ramblers outscored Michigan, 25-10, for the remainder of the half to take a 29-22 lead. “They called that timeout right before the media (timeout),” said Abdur-Rahkman. “They played Mo differently, and he just couldn’t get in the paint.”

Michigan came out in the second half aggressively on defense. “I think the defense really drove our offense,” said freshman guard Eli Brooks. “We finally started hitting shots when we started playing defense.”

Michigan regained the lead on Poole’s pair of free throws with 6:20 to play and never looked back. The Michigan defense forced 11 of Loyola’s 17 turnovers in the second half and took advantage with 18 points from turnovers, compared to just four in the firsthalf.

“They made a great run,” said Loyola senior guard Donte Ingram. “We tried to do a good job with our rotations…they’re a good team. They stuck with it and ended up getting some good looks.”

Moser gave credit to the Michigan defense for stopping Loyola in the second half. “They did what great teams do,” he said. “They capitalized on that run where we made six turnovers in a row.”

Michigan’s bench made an impact in the second half with 18 points. Loyola was held to 28 points as a team. “We needed to make some shots,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We couldn’t make them for a while but then we did. And our young guys came in there, all of a sudden we took off like crazy.”

In the end, it was rebounding and turnovers that doomed Loyola. “Two categories that we want to be on the better side in our game goal for each game,” said Donte Ingram. “We failed both of those goals.”

This was the fifth time Michigan has won after trailing by 10 points this season, and the second in the tournament. Montana, a No. 14 seed, jumped out to a 10-0 lead before Michigan erased it to win, 61-47, in the first round.

The Ramblers’ loss was the only one this season in a game they led at halftime, dropping their record to 24-1. Loyola Chicago was led by freshman center Cameron Krutwig, who scored 17 points with six rebounds. “People are going to respect us,” he said. “We are going to have to up it even more than we did this year. I have no doubt that we will.”

This season had a deep impact on Moser. “The name Loyola will never be the same,” he said. “Loyola Chicago – they’ve changed the perception. Doing things the right way. They changed a community. They changed, across the country, the alumni, the pride…they did that. I’m a better person and a better coach for coaching this group.”

The right way is a common theme from the Loyola players. “People will remember how we did it,” said junior guard Clayton Custer, who scored 15 points. “We did everything the right way.”

This will be the final game for seniors Ben Richardson and Donte Ingram, who end their careers with 90 victories, the most over a four-year period at Loyola since freshmen became eligible in the 1972-73 season.

This also marks the final game as teammates for Richardson and Custer. The two have played together for all but two seasons since they were in third grade. Custer will have one more season of eligibility. “Nothing made me happier than taking the floor with him,” said Richardson. “Having him join me in Chicago was a dream come true…we proved a lot of people wrong…we’ll never forget this.”

When the Loyola season was over, Poole, the Michigan freshman guard, was seen running to Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt. “I told her I was a big fan,” he said. “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.”

Michigan stands one win away from a national title. “We have one game left,” said Simmons. “We wanted to win the Big Ten tournament, and we did. Now we have one game left, we’re here and we’re dancing.”

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