Moe Wagner, Cinderella killer.
Michigan awoke from a first-half slumber Saturday, thanks to its burly big who put the Wolverines on his back, effectively carrying his team to its second national title game appearance in six seasons.
The book is now closed on Loyola-Chicago’s epic NCAA Tournament run.
Michigan 69, Loyola-Chicago 57.
Great players usually emerge when the stakes are the highest, and the 6-foot-11 Wagner, who arrived in the Alamo City on a career roll after winning the Big Ten Tournament MVP, put his stamp on the proceedings with 24 points and 15 rebounds. He was the best player on both ends from start to finish.
Wagner plays with a fierceness on both ends that has some NBA scouts salivating. At one point, with his team up 63-53 with 1 minute, 18 seconds remaining, the 245-pounder jumped into the passing lane to deflect a pass and had to jump over a courtside table to avoid introducing his knee to Grant Hill’s forehead. Hill shook the big guy’s hand as Michigan fans seated nearby roared their approval.
The Wolverines had to be wondering how they put the defensive clamps on Loyola-Chicago in the first half, only to find themselves in an unenviable 29-22 hole at halftime. The Wolverines trailed despite holding the Ramblers to only eight points in the first 12 minutes.
Then Wagner, the only Michigan player to play well offensively in both halves, came to life. His 3-p0inter tied it up at 47-47, and four minutes later, he signaled the three fingers down as another long-distance try found the bottom of the net.
Fairy tale interrupted.
With their suddenly world-famous mascot confidently sitting courtside at the Alamodome, the Ramblers nearly confounded the oddsmakers once again, but their hard-fought attempted dismissal of Big Ten royalty ran out of magic gas in the final five minutes.
The most popular nun since Sally Field flew into the hearts of America back in the 1960s finally ran out of karma. Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt squeezed every ounce of inspiration from that 98-year-old heart to push her boys through, but it was not to be on college basketball’s biggest stage.
ESPN personality Jalen Rose, a founding member of Michigan’s famed Fab Five, got a call from his 100-year-old grandmother last week after she tuned in to the phenomenon that was Sister Jean. It seems Mary Belle Hicks wanted to send a message to Sister Jean via video. Rose made it happen.
“It’s been a good ride but it’s over Saturday,” she said on her grandson’s Instagram account. Go Blue! 100.”
Sister Jean saw the video on Facebook.
“I heard she’s out to get me,” she said Friday. “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Michigan happened, and the dream is over.
Ms. Mary Belle was right, it turns out. And you can credit Wagner for splashing a bucket of ice water on these sleeping beauties from Chi-town. At 6 feet 11, he is a throwback to old-school ball. He’s willing to throw down in the trenches as well as show some range from the perimeter.
It wasn’t a cakewalk by any stretch. Loyola center Cameron Krutwig, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, gave Michigan’s more heralded big man all he could handle on the block. The refs let them bang all they wanted on both ends, and Krutwig, who spends the holidays singing Christmas tunes with his childhood friends in a cover band he named the Six Cheersmen, was making some sweet music at several junctures of the game against his All-Big Ten opponent. His three-point play t0 open the second half gave the Ramblers a 32-22 lead.
Wagner took it from there.
March Madness isn’t March Madness without a good Cinderella story, but Wagner and Co. were in no mood for a dream ending.
It’s over for Loyola, but Michigan will wake up Sunday one win from a national championship.
Read Cedric Golden’s report on the Kansas-Villanova game on mystatesman.com. Subscribers can get the latest results and stories from the NCAA Tournament at statesman.com/epaper.