INDIANAPOLIS – Moe Wagner gritted his teeth, pumped his fist and stuck out his mouthpiece to the crowd’s delight Sunday.
A few minutes later, the tough German took a couple more bows — first on the baseline in front of Michigan’s bench, then with the rest of his teammates near midcourt.
Suddenly, the often overlooked 6-foot-11 forward was the well-deserved center of attention.
Wagner scored a career high 26 points, made the basket that spurred Michigan’s furious second-half rally and capped the day with a three-pointer to give the Wolverines the lead for good as they knocked off second-seeded Louisville 73-69 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
“He’s got the mentality where he wants to make the play,” said Derrick Walton Jr., who drove in for Michigan’s final basket with 29 seconds left. “He just makes the right play at all times. He has the calls to make the big plays, so we feed off him because he’s not afraid of anything.”
Wagner’s fearlessness has played a big part in Michigan’s improbable late-season run.
In late February, Michigan was just 19-11 and trying to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Since then, it has won seven straight, six coming after a frightening plane accident on their way to the Big Ten Tournament.
So it seemed only fitting that the emotion, poise and momentum Michigan mustered over these past few weeks would help them fight their way off the ropes. Again.
Trailing 45-36 with 16:09 to play, Wagner made a layup that started a 17-6 run to give Michigan its first lead since the opening minutes of the game. When Wagner knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:39 to go to break a 55-55 tie, the Wolverines never trailed again.
Afterward, Michigan’s players celebrated by jumping around near midcourt, then walking next to the pep band and pumping their fists toward yellow-clad fans as the school fight song boomed.
Once inside the locker room, coach John Beilein playfully squirted his players with a water gun.
“A little damp right now,” Beilein said as the postgame news conference began. “But our guys, we started a tradition of taking a shower, I guess, without going into the shower after good wins. It’s not stopping.”
At least not in Indianapolis.
Despite going 3-3 in their previous six games, Louisville (25-9) came into Sunday as a small favorite.
Coach Rick Pitino was 3-1 in head-to-head matchups with Beilein and the Cardinals had made it to the Sweet 16 in each of their previous four NCAA appearances.
But after sitting out last year’s tourney because of a school-imposed postseason ban, the Cardinals’ hopes were doused largely because of Wagner’s ability to repeatedly get to the basket. That was all it took in a matchup between the two teams that played for a national championship four years ago.
“We made some poor switches,” Pitino said. “Probably the weakness of our team this year has been our defense. Our offense in the last ten days or two weeks, we’ve gotten significantly better because we worked inside to out.”.
Donovan Mitchell finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists to lead Louisville. Deng Adel had 16 points and Mangok Mathiang added 13.
Not much went as expected, though.
Louisville’s pressure defense forced only six Michigan turnovers and the Cardinals wound up just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.
Walton had 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists despite going 3 of 13 from the field. And two days after making a school record 16 3-pointers in a tourney game, the Wolverines were just 6 of 17.
Instead, they pounded the ball inside to D.J. Wilson, who had 17 points, three blocks and two steals, and the gritty Wagner, who spent most of Friday’s first-round win in foul trouble.
On Sunday, he used his fresh legs to do the dirty work so well that the usually reliable, quiet sophomore screamed in celebration.
“We always believed in ourselves,” Wagner said. “I just said to Coach B, we only shot six threes today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”