By Russ Brown
INDIANAPOLIS — Here is Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson’s evaluation of Michigan center Moritz “Moe” Wagner: “He’s going to have a great career.”
Uh, Jaylen, he already did.
“Wagner had a career day,” said UofL’s Deng Adel. “He was a nightmare matchup for us.”
And those nightmares are liable to linger for quite awhile after the 6-foot-10 sophomore from Berlin, Germany, blitzed UofL (25-9) with a career-high 26 points in leading the Wolverines (26-11) to a come-from-behind 73-69 upset victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The victory sent surprising Michigan, the Big Ten’s fifth-place team which has now seven in a row and 12 of its last 14, to its first Sweet Sixteen since its national runnerup finish against 2013 champion Louisville. The No. 8-seeded Wolverines will meet the winner of Sunday night’s game between No. 1 Kansas and No. 11 Rhode Island in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City on Thursday.
In trying to shut down Michigan’s dangerous outside shooters, the No. 2 Cards left themselves vulnerable inside, and Wagner took full advantage with slick moves after getting the ball on the block and unmolested drives to the basket. For good measure, he also stepped outside and drained a critical three-pointer, his only attempt of the game.
Wagner, who hit 11-of-14 shots, was a one-man wrecking crew. He also had seven rebounds and six assists, both game highs.
“I just let the game come to me,” said Wagner, who more than doubled his season scoring average of 11.8 ppg. “Don’t force anything and see what happens. Today, I got a couple of easy ones early. Therefore, my confidence level was high. We worked a lot on getting the ball in the post and being aggressive.”
In a way, it was a case of UofL coach Rick Pitino picking his poison. The Cards went into the game focused on shutting down Michigan’s 3-point bombers, who had made 16-of-29 in Friday’s 92-91 win over Oklahoma State.
During Saturday’s press conferences, Pitino had compared Michigan to the Golden State Warriors, prompting Wolverines coach John Beilein to quip that his adversary was “buttering us up” for the kill.
For the most part, UofL did a good job of meeting their goal of guarding the perimeter, as the Wolverines missed 11 of their 17 shots from beyond the arc. And leading scorer Derrick Walton Jr., who had gotten 26 points against the Cowboys, hit just 3-of-13 shots while scoring 10 points.
But Michigan scored 40 points in the paint and shot 63 percent in the second half (17-27), with D.J. Wilson getting 17 and Zak Irvin 11 as the Wolverines took advantage of Louisville switches on ball screens to create mismatches, and the Cards never adjusted.
“We wanted to hold the three down,” Pitino said. “We did it. We wanted to attack inside. We did it. They were just a better team down the stretch, a little more experience.”
“People think we’re a three-point shooting machine,” Beilein said. “You can’t do that anymore unless you can drive the ball. We’ve worked endlessly to play one-on-one in the post because people are sticking with our shooters. We can take the ball to the basket and finish. It’s a big game-changer.”
The Cards, meanwhile, also operated well down low, getting 44 points in the paint, but they were unable to hit outside shots, going 5-of-20 from three-point range. Guard Quentin Snider missed all seven of his treys and was 0-for-9 overall, and Donovan Mitchell was 3-of-8.
Afterwards, Mitchell tried to console his teammate.
“When Q has a bad game, I always make sure to talk to him,” Mitchell said. “He had a bad shooting game, but he’s done so much for this team and we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Q. I thought every shot he took was going in. When he missed the first one at the beginning of the second half, I told him, focus and knock the next one down. Same thing he would tell me. Sometimes your shot doesn’t fall; it happened to me last game and he was there to talk to me.”
Mitchell led Louisville with 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Adel had 16 points and Mangok Mathiang added 13.
UofL never trailed in the first half and was on top 36-28 after Michigan had pulled into a 28-28 tie and the Cards responded with an 8-0 surge in the final 70 seconds of the period.
Louisville looked to be in good shape when Mathiang’s rebound basket with 14:45 left made it 47-38, and Michigan still was being forced to settle for two-point field goals instead of a barrage of threes that had carried it past Oklahoma State. The Wolverines didn’t even attempt a three-pointer for the first 9 1/2 minutes of the half.
But then the flow of the game changed, and Michigan started scoring more easily, and drilled three treys in 4 1/2 minutes to complement its drives to the basket.
“Complacency,” Mitchell said, describing the reason for Michigan’s rally. “We had a lead and just settled. I took bad shots, we all took bad shots, didn’t execute, missed a few defensive assignments. Everybody did their part in a negative way.”
“I thought we were in control,” Johnson said. “You can’t let up on a great team like that. They went into halftime with a chip on their shoulder, listened to their coach and executed.”
Said Adel: “Our defense, we stopped guarding them. They shot 60-something in the second half, which is unheard for us. We stopped playing defense and worried too much about offense.”
Michigan eased in front for the first time 53-51 on a rebound basket by Abdur-Rahkman, then seized the lead for good on Wagner’s three-pointer from the left wing.
“He has great size and he’s very physical and he can step out and hit the three so it makes it difficult to guard him,” Adel said of Wagner.
“We made some bad switches by not communicating,” Pitino said. “We wanted to switch going toward the perimeter, not going to the basket. We made some poor switches.”
Although Michigan never relinquished the lead, the game wasn’t decided until the final seconds.
Michigan was on top 67-61 and had the ball out of bounds, but Adel and Mitchell scored on consecutive turnovers as the Cards closed to within 67-65 with 56 seconds remaining. After Walton and Mitchell traded baskets, Mitchell drove the lane to cut the Wolverines’ lead to 69-67 at the 18.7 mark.
Wagner sank two free throws and Mitchell scored on another layup with 10.4 seconds left, but Wilson’s two foul shots at 9.6 wrapped it up.
“They made some shots in crucial moments,” Pitino said. “It came down to a couple of crucial plays and we made a couple of big mistakes. But as a coach, you can never complain when you give great effort. All year, it’s been very tough on the whole team to focus in mentally on the little things that make a great defensive team.”
Afterwards, most of the players were reluctant to look ahead to next season, when UofL will return the bulk of its roster and adds one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Junior center Anas Mahmoud was an exception.
“I really can’t wait for next season,” he said. “The NCAA, it’s so much fun to play, and I just can’t wait to get back.”