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NCAA Final Four: Michigan rallies past Loyola-Chicago to reach national championship game

Michigan's Moritz Wagner celebrates with Charles Matthews during

Michigan's Moritz Wagner celebrates with Charles Matthews during the second half in the NCAA Tournament Final Four against Loyola-Chicago, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. Credit: AP / Eric Gay

SAN ANTONIO — Michigan knew it would be difficult and unpopular to make the clock strike 12 on Cinderella. Nobody likes to be the villain. The fact is, the Wolverines had bigger worries. They were more concerned that time was running out on them in the second half.

They trailed by 10 against Loyola-Chicago, the team that had made a magical run to the Final Four, ignoring odds and winning fans by the thousands. Ultimately, Michigan played solid defense when it had to, finally made some key shots and changed the whole theme of the national semifinal at the Alamodome. Instead of a fairy-tale sonnet, the tune was “Hail to the Victors,” the Michigan fight song that toasted a 69-57 win.

The victors forced six turn overs in an eight-minute stretch and rode the inside-outside play of Moritz Wagner, a 6-11 forward from Germany who had 24 points and 15 rebounds. Before you knew it, third-seeded Michigan (33-7) had made its way into the championship game Monday night. It had dispatched the No. 11 seed that had charmed the country with its plucky style of play and its 98-year-old nun as chaplain.

“I don’t really like the saying ‘Cinderella story’ because it always includes somehow that they’re not supposed to be here,” Wagner said. “You’ve got to give them credit. The way they’re playing, it’s incredible. They definitely deserved to be here. The whole ‘villain’ thing, at the end of the day, it’s just basketball, you know.”

Charles Matthews, the only other Michigan player to score in double figures (17 points), said: “We don’t get into those headlines. We just come out and play basketball. We didn’t look at the team as a Cinderella team. There’s like 300-something Division I teams, and they’re one of the last four standing. That’s no Cinderella story. We respected them and we knew we had to come out and execute against them.”

Michigan won its 14th straight and ended Loyola’s winning streak at 14 games.

Neither side did much from outside the three-point line, perhaps because of nerves, perhaps because of the challenge of shooting in a huge stadium rather than an arena. Loyola (32-6) was only 1-for-10 and Michigan shot 7-for-28. Wagner sank the most, with three.

The junior did enough of everything to save Michigan from the same fate as other teams that Loyola had upset. “Moe just kept fighting. He knew he could be an X-factor in this game,” teammate Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said.

Coach John Beilein put it simply about his multipurpose big man: “He’s a special kid.”

Afterward, Wagner was told he had become only the third player with at least 20 points and at least 15 rebounds in a semifinal, following Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird.

“Wow. If you put it like that, it’s probably cool,” said Wagner, who was so active that he twice had to jump off the court and onto press row, the second time breaking broadcaster Bill Raftery’s glasses. “But to be honest, I kept looking possession by possession.”

Each possession was a nightmare for Loyola, which had outgrown the just-happy-to-be-here tag. “We were happy to be here, but we also wanted more. We were up 10 points in the second half, we should have won the game,” point guard Clayton Custer said. “We should be playing in the national championship game on Monday but we just made too many mistakes in the second half.

“We inspired a city. I think we inspired a lot of people across the country. People can be proud to say they went to Loyola. The word ‘Loyola’ has a new meaning now. I’m proud of that.”

They inspired the opposition, too. Right after the game ended, Michigan guard Jordan Poole made a beeline to visit with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and national sensation.

“I told her I was a big fan,” Poole said. “I just thought the entire concept and everything that she brought to the table . . . I thought was amazing.”

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