Staring down a 10-point, second-half deficit against an underdog that seemed nothing short of blessed during the madness of March, Moe Wagner and Michigan clamped down on Loyola of Chicago and ended one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament runs ever.
Wagner scored 24 points, Charles Matthews added 17 and the Wolverines rallied to beat the Ramblers 69-57 Saturday night in the Final Four.
The third-seeded Wolverines (33-7) will take a 14-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, into their first national championship game appearance since 2013, and second under coach John Beilein.
“We’re not done yet,” Michigan senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman said.
Michigan will play a No. 1 seed, either Villanova or Kansas, for its first NCAA title since 1989 on Monday night at the Alamodome.
Lovable Loyola (32-6), with superfan Sister Jean courtside and their fans behind the bench standing for pretty much the entire game, could not conjure another upset. The Ramblers were the fourth 11th-seeded team to make it this far and like the previous three, the semifinals were the end of the road.
Coach Porter Moser said he was proud of players Ben Richardson, Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram for holding it together during a postgame news conference, answering questions with red eyes and long faces.
“But it was as tough a locker room as I’ve seen because they believed they belonged and they believed like they wanted to advance,” Moser said.
Loyola had no answers for the 6-foot-11 Wagner, and its offense, so smooth and efficient on the way to San Antonio, broke down in the second half and finished with 17 turnovers.
Wagner, playing in front of his parents who made the trip from Germany, had 15 rebounds and was 10 for 16 from the field. Matthews, the Kentucky transfer and Chicago native, had a run-out dunk with 1:33 left that made it 63-53. And that was that.
Wagner became the third player in the last 40 years with a 20 and 15 game in a Final Four game , joining Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston in 1983 (then known as Akeem) and Larry Bird of Indiana State in 1979.
“Wow. If you put it like that, it’s probably cool,” Wagner said. “But to be honest, I kept looking possession by possession. 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.”
Or, as Michigan guard Jaaron Simmon, put it: “He was a beast tonight.”
Wagner also went flying off the elevated court, chasing a loose ball, avoiding injury but taking out CBS commentator Bill Raftery’s eye glasses. It was a full night.
As the seconds ticked off, Wagner pumped his fist to the many Michigan fans who made the trek to San Antonio, while Loyola’s Jackson, who got the Ramblers rolling with a late game-winning 3 in the first round against Miami, looked toward the roof and shook his head.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola’s big man, scored 17 points and Clayton Custer had 13 of his 15 after halftime. But facing one of the best defensive teams in the country, the best defensive team Beilein has ever had in 11 seasons in Ann Arbor, the Ramblers scored just 16 points in the final 14 minutes.
“Their length. They close the gap of opportunity really fast,” Moser said.