March 19, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Moritz Wagner stood in the triumphant postgame huddle around University of Michigan head coach John Beilein and could not stop smiling. That's the feeling you get after a game in which you could not stop scoring.
Wagner put up a career-high 26 points. He tore apart Louisville with speed, quickness, ball fakes and the post-up moves assistant coach Saddi Washington has drilled into him and the rest of the Wolverines. D.J. Wilson also was a force on the block, scoring 17 points.
Michigan is headed to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City as a result of beating Louisville, 73-69, on Sunday (March 19), and when Beilein circled his team in a small Bankers Life Fieldhouse locker room his voice cracked at times.
"I'm so proud of you guys," Beilein began. "They were getting breaks and breaks and breaks with the ball bouncing their way. You did not flinch. You did not flinch. You just kept going.
"Why not us?"
The Wolverines had just beaten a high-powered, high-flying bunch of Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, with a show of heart and superior determination. They held Louisville nine points below its scoring average and showed they can win inside as well as outside.
Michigan beat Oklahoma State, 92-91, in the tourney opener by draining 16 three-pointers -- equaling the most ever by any Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament -- and pounded the ball inside to beat the Cardinals while making just six-of-17 treys.
"That's been our identity in the last month -- finding different ways to win," said gritty point guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Wagner was Exhibit A in that regard.
The 6-foot-11 sophomore made the only three-pointer he took and 11-of-14 shots overall. He scored four baskets on drives to the hoop in the first 4:41 of the second half to spark the game's turnaround.
"Coach Beilein set me up pretty well," Wagner said of the plays called. "Those were easy buckets for me and high confidence for everyone to see the ball going in. My teammates were looking for me, and I was able to make plays."
Wagner tapped in a missed shot, and then faked a defender with a spin move along the baseline to score on a finger roll. He drove from the top of the key for another finger roll. Rather than going for the showy dunks, he simply deposited the ball in the rim he seemed to own in this game.
Nothing was sweeter than his last basket. Walton set up the play out top, getting teammates into place while properly anticipating the exact moment to pass to Wagner, who bought himself a step with a ball fake and cruised to the hole to score on another -- you guessed it -- finger roll.
That made it 67-61 with 1:18 remaining and put Michigan in the driver's seat.
"They expected me to set a ball screen," Wagner told me. "Derrick passed it to me, and I wanted to shoot at first, but I was too far out. I saw that the lane was wide open and just took it. That turned out well.
"I just let the game come to me. Don't force anything and see what happens. Today, I got a couple easy ones early. Therefore, my confidence level was high."
Beilein said that "let-the-game-come-to-me" attitude was what stood out most about his play.
"They were switching so much stuff," Beilein said of Louisville's defensive approach. "So, as a result of them switching that much, Moe has to think a lot more. But the bottom line was, after they do all those things, we just wanted the ball to him in the box and let him try to play out of that.
"He really is evolving as a player right now, and it's a lot of fun to watch."
I asked several Wolverines what, of all that Wagner did, impressed them most about his performance.
"He's got the mentality where he wants to make the play," said Walton. "We feed off him so much because he plays with so much energy. He just makes the right play at all times. He has the (guts) to make the big plays, so we feed off him because he's not afraid of anything."
Walton, a senior co-captain, says he has a big brother-little brother relationship with Wagner. They get on each other like brothers and hug like brothers.
Closeness is as big a reason why these Wolverines (26-11) are where they are. Shoot, Wagner, known as Moe, and Wilson are roommates.
"Moe just has the mentality of he's not scared of the moment," said Wilson. "I think you saw that today. Down the stretch, when he got the ball, he knew he was going to make a play, and we watched him. He executed well down the stretch. That was big, a big confidence boost."
Wilson and Wagner embraced afterward, and the whole team rushed across the court together to wave and shout to family and friends seated directly across from their bench.
Wagner, with a big assist from his roomie, who scored big and blocked three shots as well as making all four free throws awarded in the final 17 seconds, had made the celebration possible.
Wilson and Wagner outscored Louisville's top scoring big men, Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang, 43-29, and overcame a nine-point deficit early in the second half.
"They were just a better team down the stretch," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who passed the Wolverines in the narrow walkway leading from the arena concourse to the press conference interview platform.
"Good luck, guys," Pitino told Beilein, Walton, Wilson and Wagner.
Pitino had compared the Wolverines to the Golden State Warriors before the game, and that powerhouse NBA team is known as the Dubs, a play on the pronunciation of the W at the front of their nickname.
And now the three players filing past Pitino all just happened to have last names beginning with W.
Call them the Three Dubs.
Wagner saw to it that they came up with the W on the scoreboard, too.
"He came up big on both ends of the floor," said senior co-captain Zak Irvin, "and he brought us home."
Swingman Duncan Robinson said, "It was just his resiliency. He had a tough game the other day and to fight that off and be our go-to guy down the stretch was incredible. He just made so many plays for us."
Guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added, "He was remarkable. To have a five (center) as versatile as him is such an asset for our team. He took that next-man-up attitude and had a great game. He didn't let that game against Oklahoma State bother him and he played hard."
Wagner got into foul trouble against Oklahoma State two days earlier, and scored only six points in 14 minutes. But, funny thing was, in the post-game huddle after that game he smiled just as widely.
This guy, just like his teammates, is all about the team, and that's why they've won seven straight games.
And that is why they continue marching in March. The Wolverines might be the No. 23 team in the Associated Press poll and the No. 7 seed in the region, but they look in the mirror and see much more than that.
I asked Wagner what his thoughts were walking off the court after the game of his life.
"I didn't cry," he said, "but that's very emotional. To be able to continue this journey with this team, with the way we are playing, means so much. We just always find a way. We earned 40 more minutes, and it's all about that.
"So, we can't wait for next week and heading to Kansas City."
Kansas City, here they come.