SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Staring down a 10-point deficit against an underdog that seemed nothing short of blessed during the madness of March, Moe Wagner and Michigan clamped down on Loyola-Chicago and ended one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament runs ever.
Wagner, Charles Matthews and the Wolverines erased a 10-point second-half deficit and Michigan beat the Ramblers 69-57 Saturday night in the Final Four.
The third-seeded Wolverines (33-7) will take a 14-game winning streak into their first national championship game appearance since 2013, and second under coach Jon Beilein.
Michigan will play 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.
“It was as tough a locker room as I’ve seen,” Moser said. “They believed that they belong. They believed, they wanted to advance.”
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, scored 24 points, had 15 rebounds and was 10 for 16 from the field. Matthews, the Kentucky transfer and Chicago native, added 17 points, including a run-out dunk with 1:33 left that made it 63-53.
And that was that.
“I just tried to go in the game, take what the opponent is giving me, what the game is giving me, stay emotionally solid and don’t get emotionally drunk, and it worked out today,” said Wagner, who became the third player in the last 40 years with a 20 and 15 game in the Final Four, joining Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston in 1983 (then known as Akeem) and Larry Bird of Indiana State in 1979.
As the seconds ticked off, Wagner pumped his fist to the many Michigan fans who made the trek to San Antonio and 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.
Custer scored seven straight points for Loyola at one point to put the Ramblers up 41-31 with 14:08 remaining. Michigan refused to fade, even with point guard Zavier Simpson — whose solid play has been critical to the Wolverines’ late-season surge — playing terribly. Simpson had none points and four turnovers.
Jaaron Simmons, Simpson’s backup, made a 3 and Duncan Robinson hit another a few minutes later and the deficit was down to 45-42 with 10 minutes left.
“Not dropping our heads, that was the main thing,” Simmons said. “We haven’t been down in a game for a long time. So not dropping our heads was one of the main adjustments we had to make.”
Wagner hit a 3 from right in front of the Michigan bench with 6:50 left to tie it, and moments later the Wolverines were back on top, 49-47, when Jordan Poole made two free throws.
Loyola turned it over on three straight possessions and Wagner tipped in a miss by Poole, was fouled and converted the three-point play to put Michigan up 54-47 with just under five minutes left.
The Ramblers’ 14-game losing streak is over, along with an incredible feel-good story at a time that college basketball, engulfed in a corruption scandal, could truly use one. Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt and her favorite team, the Missouri Valley Conference champions, making their first NCAA appearance since 1985, will return to Chicago as heroes, regardless.
“It’s special to see kind of what stage we were able to get to,” said Richardson, a senior who grew up in Kansas with Custer and then convinced his friend to transfer from Iowa State to Loyola. “Despite going out this way, were going to never forget this. I think a lot of people will remember this run for a long time.”
Michigan has more work to do. The Wolverines will resume the underdog role they played much of the season Monday night, trying to win its second NCAA championship.
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