Final Four 2018: Moe Wagner, Michigan reject idea, reality of Loyola's 'Cinderella' run

The matchup between the Wolverines and Ramblers pitted two good, no other qualifiers needed, teams against each other. The better one won.

SAN ANTONIO – A regulation basketball court comprises 4,700 square feet, and Michigan’s Moe Wagner covered all of that and so much more during the first 40 minutes he spent at the 2018 NCAA Final Four.

Wagner, the Wolverines’ 6-11 junior center, set an unofficial Final Four record by twice flying over the side of the elevated court the NCAA constructed at the center of the Alamodome. He did so without incident, unless you count the pair of squished reading glasses that had been attached to the bridge of TBS analyst Bill Raftery’s nose.

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By finishing the game with 24 points and 15 rebounds, he officially joined the esteemed company of legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players to record at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament semifinal game.

“Wow,” Wagner said. “If you put it like that, it’s pretty cool.”

And the Wolverines needed all of it: the trio of 3-pointers, six offensive rebounds, three steals, myriad deflections and especially the exhausting effort that led to those sojourns off the playing surface. Because the Loyola Ramblers were very bit as special as their run to the Final Four suggested they were, and Michigan did not stretch out toward their 69-57 victory until the game’s closing minutes.

Loyola entered as the darling of the tournament because they play in a league, the Missouri Valley, that gets less attention than a team in the Big Ten (or Big East or Big 12) is going to receive. Michigan was charged with eliminating them, and they did so without concern to the Ramblers’ charm factor.

“I don’t really like the saying ‘Cinderella story,’ because it always includes somehow that they’re not supposed to be there,” Wagner said. “And the way they’re playing, it’s incredible.”

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Loyola coach Porter Moser certainly believed the Ramblers belonged. When I encountered him in the hallway and offered congratulations on an incredible season and beautifully coached team, Moser graciously accepted but wasn’t ready to dwell on what they’d accomplished in going 32-6. He still was lamenting the 11 second-half turnovers.

“What I said to them was: The more you invest in something, the harder it is to give it up,” Moser said a few minutes later in his press conference. “They didn’t want to end it. And they have so much to be proud of. They changed the perception of a program; they changed the perception of when you say ‘Loyola Chicago’ – for men’s basketball, they changed that.”

Loyola’s defensive rotations were so tight they nearly strangled the Wolverines’ attack. As a basketball coach, Beilein marveled at how beautifully the Ramblers executed their game plan, jamming drives by dropping from the perimeter to create a wall at the foul line. As Michigan’s basketball coach, he had to find an answer, and the short-term response in the first half was to order Wagner to roll hard off every ball screen and clean up whatever offensive rebounds were available.

“I kept looking possession by possession,” Wagner said. “We had trouble scoring the first half. We scored 22 points, and that was kind of the only way we found our way to the basket: grab offensive rebounds and get second-shot opportunities. And I honestly just tried to do my job.

“The shots were falling in the second half. It’s a lot more fun when the ball goes through the net.”

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Wagner struck twice from 3-point range in the second half, both of them enormously consequential.

The Wolverines fell behind by 10 points when Loyola center Cameron Krutwig earned a 3-point play on his team’s first possession of the final 20 minutes, but Michigan gradually worked its way back into the game and surged forward when Beilein decided to remove seniors Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and insert freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers. It was a taller, longer, more dynamic group and the Ramblers began to struggle controlling the basketball against the energized defense.

“Yeah, the Drip Boys are full of swag – that’s what they call themselves. They bring instant energy, especially this kid here,” Matthews told Sporting News, pointing to Poole. “This is my roommate, so I’ve got my hands tied with him the whole trip long. He worked so hard on his game. I see him night-in, night-out, the stress he brings to himself because he cares so much. I’m just happy to see him perform so well on the big stage.”

Poole did well when he left that stage, as well, going out of his way to visit with Loyola’s team chaplain, the now-famous Sister Jean.

“I told her I was a big fan,” Poole said. “She had their back the entire time.”

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Up against the younger pack of Wolverines, though, Loyola committed five consecutive turnovers; the first of those set up the UM possession that ended when Wagner dribbled away from the post and into a right-corner 3-pointer. Two free throws from Poole earned on a baseline drive put the Wolverines in front for good, and that was followed by a similar drive from sophomore Charles Matthews and a converted layup, and then came Wagner’s tip-and-one off of Poole’s miss from long distance.

“Our defense created some turnovers. I don’t think we had any fastbreak points out of it, but we just stopped them,” Beilein said. “They’re really difficult at this time in front of their bench, calling their plays. They run some great action.

“We made a concerted effort to take away the three. A little bit like an Isaac Haas-type of idea, where that kid’s going to get two on Moe, but we’re not going to give these great 3-point shooters – they make seven a game, but we limited them to one.”

It was a dream come true for Wagner, who had watched Michigan play in the championship game against Louisville when he was 15 and seen Beilein coach the Wolverines to within a couple baskets – and, more to the point, a couple of missed defensive rebounds -- of the NCAA title.

Beilein subsequently received a tip from a contact in the business about a big kid in Germany who was very talented and interested in playing at an American college, and he arranged a quick trip to Berlin to meet Wagner.

“I mean, that was obviously pretty cool for me, because I watched this my entire childhood, this Final Four here. And I knew him from that final game,” Wagner said. “It’s kind of crazy now, we’re in it together.”