Michigan spent three quarters of its NCAA Tournament win over Louisville just trying to stay alive. The Wolverines were trailing throughout and trying to just do enough to keep contact.
They clawed their way to a late tie in the first half before allowing an 8-0 run in the final minute of play. Then the lead hovered around 9 points early in the second before Zak Irvin hit three straight shots to send Michigan to the under 12 media timeout down by just 3 points.
That was just enough late life to give the Wolverines one more chance with their season on the line. Michigan finally tied the game at 51 with 9:16 to play before exchanging baskets with the Cardinals for a couple of possessions.
It was a three-pointer by Moritz Wagner — who tallied a career-high 26 points on 14 shot attempts — that gave Michigan the lead it would never relinquish. The Wolverines held on down the stretch with a clutch driving layup by Derrick Walton and four late game free throws by DJ Wilson to punch their ticket to their third Sweet Sixteen appearance in the last 5 years.
Michigan scored 1.18 points per possession for the game and the story was its ability to get down hill and get to the rim. Louisville tried and succeeded at taking away the three — Michigan attempted just 30% of its shots from three-point range and made 6-of-17 — but it exposed itself by taking away the three. The best way to attack pressure is with aggression and Michigan looked to its front court players to get down hill and get into the paint against mismatches.
The Wolverines shot 55% on two-point attempts for the game and were 14-of-21 inside the arc in the second half. Louisville managed to negate Derrick Walton, but the Michigan bigs proved that they were capable of getting isolation bucks. The Wolverines scored 40 points in the paint against the biggest and longest frontcourt that they’ve faced all season and it was enough to propel them to victory.
It’s something that we take for granted after watching Michigan all season, but turning the ball over just 6 times in 62 possessions (9% turnover rate) makes up for a lot of the defensive rebounding issues. The Wolverines gained 5 possessions in the turnover column and gave up 6 more offensive rebounds than they grabbed. As John Beilein said in his post game, there’s more than one way to win a game.
Defensively, Michigan really struggled against Louisville’s size in the front court. The Cardinals rebounded 42% of their misses and scored 12 second chance points. Louisville’s four post players were 12-of-17 from the floor, their teammates were just 16-of-37. Michigan mostly hung in there and tried to defend the bigs one-on-one and on the possessions. That led to a lot of easy baskets, but whenever those easy opportunities were denied the Cardinals guards couldn’t create offensive much with much efficiency.
This group of players that even John Beilein seemed to not be able to figure out in January is playing with as much confidence as any Michigan team since 2014. They’ve won 7 in a row and 12 of the last 14 and are playing like a team that is more serious about making a trip to Phoenix than one that’s just happy to be around. The Wolverines will face either Oregon or Rhode Island in the Sweet Sixteen in Kansas City on Thursday night.
- Moritz Wagner: After watching Derrick Walton destroy every pick and roll switch for the last two weeks, Moritz Wagner had his turn. Wagner scored 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting and he carved up Louisville’s bigs and forwards off the dribble and on the block. Some of his offense came off of easy cuts, but he also hit a pick and pop three and scored on an array of spin moves and baseline drives. It was a career night for the German forward on the biggest stage that he’s ever seen and he scored 17 of his 26 in the second half. His McGary-like ability to grab steals is also turning into a gamechanger.
- DJ Wilson: I thought Wilson would struggle against Louisville’s length, but he had 17 points on 6-of-13 (1-3 3pt) shooting with 3 blocks and a steal. He also hit the most important clutch free throws (4 in a row) for the second NCAA Tournament game in a row. Wilson has always shown flashes, but he’s doing so many different things and so consistently that you can see him growing into a star. His offensive isolation skills early were smooth and his ability to give Michigan some semblance of rim protection is also critical. Oh yeah, he can also step in and drill a critical pick and pop three with the game on the line.
- Zak Irvin: Moe Wagner was the star, DJ Wilson hit the big free throws, and Derrick Walton made a critical late layup, but it was Zak Irvin who got Michigan up off the mat. Irvin scored three straight shots midway through the second half that cut the deficit to three. Irvin finished with 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting with 4 rebounds and two assists. It might not have been the biggest game that he ever played, but the result isn’t the same without that two minute stretch.
- Derrick Walton: Walton was just 3-of-13 from the floor and 2-of-7 from deep, but he handed out 6 assists and grabbed 7 rebounds while making a ridiculously difficult driving layup at the rim with 29 seconds left. The shots that Walton was missing were the shots he had been making over the last two weeks so I have no problem with him taking them and even on an off day he had some critical makes.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman scored 6 points and handed out a pair of assists in 37 minutes. It was a quiet night, but his made baskets and free throws all were critical to Michigan’s second half comeback. The Wolverines ran one really nice set that helped isolate him on a switch and allowed him to get downhill on a drive.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal hit a big three in the first half and picked up a block in 9 minutes, six of which came in the first half. He was beaten pretty badly for a few rebounding chances, but helped provide at least a few quality minutes in the first half.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson missed all three shots he took and I can’t remember a game where he was more bothered by the opponents’ length. He only played 12 minutes on the day as this was just a game where it was hard to use the Wolverines’ small ball lineups.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson has seen very limited playing time in both NCAA Tournament games and saw just four minutes against the Cardinals.