Michigan forward Moe Wagner sealed his spot as the star of Michigan’s 69-57 win over Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four when he hit a three-pointer that tied the game with less than 7 minutes remaining, erasing what was a double-digit Rambler lead. But what was more important came after that shot.
After being the only Wolverine to make an impact for much of the game on Saturday, Wagner began receiving some help — just as the No. 11 seed Ramblers, the darling story of this NCAA Tournament, began to fall apart.
“All we needed to see was the ball go in a couple of times, get a couple of stops, and we did that,” Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons said. “The momentum — you could just feel it shifting our way.”
Just as Loyola turned the ball over on four straight possessions against stout team defense from Michigan, different Wolverines found ways to contribute on offense. Jordan Poole hit two free throws. Charles Mathews converted a layup. Then Wagner found himself at the rim, ready to convert a layup through a foul after grabbing one of his six offensive rebounds.
After the ensuing Wagner free throw, the Wolverines had a five-point lead with less than 5 minutes remaining. That was the most the Wolverines had been ahead since just more than 8 minutes remained in the first half, and Michigan wouldn’t let the Ramblers back into the game.
Wagner finished with game-highs of 24 points and 15 rebounds. After his teammates combined to make just 4 of 23 shots in the first half, they converted 11 of their final 20 field-goal attempts to close the contest. The Wolverines used a 21-6 run to advance to their first national championship game since 2013.
“We just couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said.
This Loyola team became just the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four and did so with patient offense and precision passing. The Ramblers led by 10 points with 14 minutes remaining, too. But they ended up becoming the fourth No. 11 seed to bow out in this round, as a lengthy Michigan defense overtook the Ramblers late, when Loyola threw the ball away.
Rambler center Cameron Krutwig — who scored a team-high 17 points — began the unraveling by throwing an entry pass that sailed too high and too far and went out of bounds. Then the Ramblers from Overland Park — guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson — both reached for a ball in the corner that neither could grab.
In all, Loyola turned the ball over 17 times — a team-high for the NCAA Tournament — and Michigan scored 22 points off of those giveaways. Ten Loyola turnovers came in the second half, when starting guard Marques Townes battled cramps and went scoreless.
“We just kind of got out of rhythm,” Krutwig said. “Our offense became kind of standstill.”
About midway through the first half, the Ramblers had figured out the Michigan defense while every Wolverine whose last name isn’t Wagner looked mostly helpless. Michigan only recorded one assist in the first half and turned the ball over eight times. Loyola scored 19 of the first half’s final 27 points.
After allowing Michigan to score the first 11 second-chance points and grab eight first-half offensive rebounds compared to Loyola’s two, the Ramblers still went into halftime up 29-22. Donte Ingram tossed up a floater that dropped in for Loyola just before the buzzer after Custer had missed at the rim.
Custer finished with 15 points. Richardson, a senior, had four points and four rebounds. The two lifelong friends who won state championships together at Blue Valley Northwest might never play for the same team again.
“I’m so proud to call him my best friend,” Custer said. “I’m so sad that it has to be over. I love him. He’s my best friend."