A sweet victory, indeed. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
As John Beilein delivered his opening statement of the postgame presser, Derrick Walton looked up to the ceiling and mouthed "oh my god."
Michigan won their second instant classic in as many games. Perhaps most remarkable is they went about it in an entirely different way. After making 16 three-pointers against Oklahoma State, the Wolverines were forced by Louisville's aggressive, switching defense to play through their big men. With Derrick Walton struggling to hit his shots, Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson stole the show.
Wagner scored a game-high 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. In arguably the best performance of his young career, the big man used a dizzying array of post moves to punish mismatches. His biggest bucket of the game came on a move Beilein has wanted to see from him for a long time; off a pick-and-pop, Wagner got his defender to bite on a pump fake at the three-point line, then drove for a layup to give Michigan a six-point lead with 1:18 to go.
"We feed off of him," Walton said. "Because he's not afraid of anything."
Wilson's all-around impact nearly matched that of his German roommate. The last of his 17 points came in the final 20 seconds at the free-throw line, where his perfect four-for-four shooting kept the Cardinals at bay. His third block of the game ended the contest, as Walton plucked Donovan Mitchell's tipped shot out of the air and triumphantly raced into the frontcourt as the clock expired.
"Our play is kinda contagious on the floor," said Wilson. "I feed off his energy and he feeds off mine. Down the stretch when we pulled out the victory, I was as happy as I could possibly be."
Moe Wagner's best game couldn't have come at a better time. [Campredon]
Louisville led for nearly the entire first half. While neither team shot the ball well, ten UL offensive rebounds kept them out in front, and some creative officiating helped them go on an 8-0 run to close the half after Michigan had finally managed to tie it up. At the break, the outlook was bleak.
"The end of the first half I thought was a defining moment for our team," said Beilein. "A team that's not as experienced or doesn't have the poise that we had, they come back and try to win it all right away, but we won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game."
That meant weathering a tough stretch at the beginning of the second half. Louisville center Mangok Mathiang matched Wagner bucket-for-bucket, and his putback off a missed three-pointer extended the lead to nine with 14:46 left. Then Michigan's offense really got rolling. Three straight baskets by Zak Irvin cut the deficit to three, and a short time later Wilson nailed a pick-and-pop three to get the Wolverines within one.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman knotted the game at 51 with 8:54 to play, hitting two free-throws after taking a hard foul at the rim. While the teams would trade blows, Michigan never trailed again. Wilson worked his way into the paint to give them the lead. The perimeter finally opened up a bit; Wagner knocked down a triple out of a timeout, then Walton followed suit with a signature stepback, looking as if he had no recollection of going 1-for-11 up to that point.
Derrick Walton came up huge when his team needed it most. [Campredon]
Wagner's pump-fake layup looked like it would ice the game, especially when Jaylon Johnson committed an offensive foul on the following possession, but Louisville wasn't done. Irvin coughed up back-to-back turnovers on inbounds as UL turned up the pressure, and a layup by Mitchell, who led the Cardinals with 19 points, cut the deficit to two as hearts jumped into throats and stomachs churned.
That was Walton's cue. Michigan's unflappable leader hadn't made a shot at the rim all afternoon, but when he got a step on his defender, he didn't hesitate to go up strong over Deng Adel for a layup.
Mitchell would get two more layups, but each one was answered by Wilson free throws. Wilson and Wagner embraced after the game-sealing block to send Michigan to the Sweet Sixteen.
"We're very close," said Wagner. "It's beautiful seeing each other be successful."
It sure is.