INDIANAPOLIS — Moritz Wagner left his celebrating teammates for a brief, sweet moment Sunday to find an empty corner of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and bow his head in private gratitude.
Well, OK, maybe it wasn’t all that private.
The thousands of Michigan fans in attendance and many thousands more watching on television around the world joined him in celebrating an improbable individual performance that extended an even more improbable team run.
Moritz — “Moe” to his friends, of whom there now are many more than before — had just concluded the performance of a lifetime to lead Michigan to a 73-69 upset of Louisville in an NCAA Tournament second-round game.
The 6-11 sophomore from Berlin, Germany, scored a career-high 26 points in 31 minutes and shot 11-for-14 as No. 7 seed Michigan (26-11) advanced to Kansas City to face Oregon.
Louisville (25-9), seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Regional, lost for the first time in 13 NCAA Tournament games as a second seed and ended a streak of four regional semifinals in tournaments in which it participated. Coach Rick Pitino reached the Sweet 16 in 13 of his previous 16 NCAA appearances — seven of nine at Louisville.
For Michigan, the win meant another week as a sentimental favorite after it began its postseason journey by having the team plane overrun a runway and crash into a fence en route to the Big Ten Tournament in Washington. The Wolverines left the next morning and won four games in four days. They added two here.
The biggest surprise was the way it happened. After watching Michigan beat Oklahoma State by going 11-for-15 on three-pointers in the second half, Pitino compared it to the Golden State Warriors. Louisville sought to take away the long-range game. But as Michigan had promised, it is more versatile than given credit for, and it repeatedly burned the taller Cardinals inside.
Wagner, who came in averaging 11.9 points, led the way as Michigan shot 17-for-27 in the second half. After making and attempting more threes than twos against Oklahoma State, Michigan totaled 40 points in the paint and was 6-for-17 on threes.
“I just said to Coach B [John Beilein], we only made six threes today, and we won,” Wagner said. “So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”
Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. said Wagner has the guts to make a big play. “He’s not afraid of anything,” Walton said.
Pitino lamented that defense has been a Louisville failing all season. It was again. Said Deng Adel: “They shot 63 percent from the field in the second half, which is unheard of against us. We just gave them no resistance. We stopped playing defense and were too worried about offense.”
Beilein, who happily soaked his players with a water gun in the locker room after the game, said the “defining moment” was not folding after Louisville scored the last eight points of the first half to take a 36-28 lead. Michigan gradually asserted control and took a 63-57 lead on Wagner’s layup with 4:58 left.
It was 67-65 when Walton, who had missed 10 of his first 11 shots, drove for a layup to make it 69-65 with 29 seconds left. Four free throws by D.J. Wilson (17 points) clinched it.
Michigan, true to its nation-best turnover average, gave up the ball only six times.
Donovan Mitchell led Louisville with 19 points and seven rebounds. Quentin Snider shot 0-for-9 and did not score.
Pitino lamented bad switches, poor communication and other defensive failures. Many of them involved failing to stop one very tall young German.
“Moe just has the mentality that he’s not scared in the moment,” Wilson said. “I think you definitely saw that today. Down the stretch, he got the ball, he knew he was going to make a play, and we watched him.”