Why Moe Wagner’s 'physically dominant' night in Final Four was so surprising

SAN ANTONIO — At the end of a game in which he drained his gas tank dry out-muscling opposing big men for rebounds, chasing quicker forwards around screens and even acrobatically leaping over the announcer’s table, Michigan’s Moritz Wagner found the relief he craved.

A golf cart arrived at the Michigan locker room to take three of the victorious Wolverines to the postgame news conference.

“I’m definitely getting on there,” Wagner said. “I’m not walking.”

Wagner earned a brief moment of respite after his superhuman performance fueled Michigan’s 69-57 comeback victory over Loyola-Chicago in the first of Saturday’s two national semifinals. The 6-foot-11 German scored 24 points and grabbed a season-high 15 boards in 36 physically exhausting minutes, sending the Wolverines to the national championship game and ending the Ramblers’ bid to become the first double-digit seed to play for a title.

Some of Wagner’s best moments came at key junctures of the second half as Michigan was trying to silence an underdog-friendly crowd and claw back from a 10-point deficit. He tied the game with a corner 3-pointer, extended the Wolverines’ lead to seven with a put-back through contact and buried a dagger in Cinderella’s heart with a 3-pointer to push the gap to eight with less than three minutes to go.

“He was physically dominant today, which is something that you haven’t really seen from him at all times,” Michigan forward Duncan Robinson said. “Usually he gets you with his skill, but to dominate the game a different way was really impressive.”

While Wagner joined future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players ever to tally at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal game, the aspect of his performance that drew the most buzz was an achievement that didn’t show up on the box score. Wagner careened off the raised court attempting to save a loose ball late in the second half and managed to hurdle the Turner Sports announcer table without so much as losing his balance.

The only casualty on the play were analyst Bill Raftery’s glasses, which were broken beyond repair when he, Jim Nantz and Grant Hill attempted to scurry out of Wagner’s path of destruction.

Said Raftery with a loud laugh after the game, “He said, ‘Sorry, Coach.’ And I said, ‘Should I send the bill to Berlin?'”

Countered a chuckling Wagner in the postgame locker room, “I hope he can afford a second pair of glasses.”

Exchanges like that show why it’s lazy to portray Wagner as the villain who ended Cinderella’s run. This is a smart, funny kid who himself has defied the odds to lead Michigan from outside the preseason Top 25 to the brink of a national title.

Wagner’s sense of humor was what Beilein liked best about the young German the first time he met him in Berlin five years ago. Beilein said last week he nearly offered Wagner a scholarship after taking one elevator ride with him because the young big man was “so engaging.”

What Beilein saw on the floor from Wagner was also intriguing, a spindly yet skilled player with a knack for scoring over smaller players in the post or drawing lumbering opposing centers away from the basket with his outside shooting. Those skills were the hallmark of Wagner’s breakout sophomore season last year when he led Michigan to a Big Ten tournament title and a berth in the Sweet 16.

The difference this season is Wagner’s renewed commitment at the other end of the floor. A huge part of Michigan’s defensive ascendance this season has been Wagner’s improved ability to hold his ground in the post, defend ball screens effectively and above all else rebound out of his area.

“The first day we ever met, he told me, ‘You hold me accountable on the defensive end of the floor,'” first-year Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich said. “That’s all I needed to know about Moe.

“Most kids don’t want to grind away at the defensive end of the floor, but Moe knew for us to be a really good team, he had to be a really good defender. I’m proud of him. It’s a great testament to his hard work.”

Michigan’s Moritz Wagner (13) reacts after scoring a 3-point shot against Loyola-Chicago during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Wagner’s performance was always going to be a key to Saturday’s game because he spent time matched up against both skilled but mammoth Cameron Krutwig and smaller, quicker Aundre Jackson. By maximizing the mismatches on offense and minimizing them on defense, Wagner boosted Michigan’s hopes of victory.

When Michigan was misfiring from the perimeter and struggling to attack the rim off the dribble in the first half, Wagner kept the Wolverines afloat on the offensive glass. He took advantage of the way Loyola would switch a guard onto him when he was involved in ball screens, posting a double-double by halftime and scoring eight of his 11 first-half points via put-backs.

“That’s the only way we really scored,” Beilein said. “Anybody that follows Michigan wouldn’t say, ‘Hey they’re going to kill you on the offensive boards.’ But because they were switching, we said, ‘Moe, you’ve just got to roll more, get down there and clean up any rebounds you can because you have a 6-foot guy on you.”

In the second half, Wagner unleashed his full arsenal, fighting off tired legs to finish 10 of 16 from the field and 3 of 7 from behind the arc. When asked after the game how it felt to be one win away from a national championship, Wagner was honest.

Said the hero of Michigan’s national semifinal win, “I’m exhausted.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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