Michigan will play for a National Championship on Monday night after completing a comeback victory that was a fitting representation of its season.
The Wolverines locked in early on defense, but only managed to score 22 first half points and trailed at the half. They fell behind by as many as 10 points in the second half but roared back down the stretch to pull away with a double-digit victory. It was never pretty or perfect, but Michigan was the tougher team down the stretch.
The victory brought back memories of those early season struggles and subsequent comebacks that might have saved the season, but also flashed signs of growth as Charles Matthews played a dominant game with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 35 minutes.
Jaaron Simmons and Jordan Poole gave the Wolverines some timely production off the bench, but it was junior big man Moritz Wagner who carried his team to the win. Wagner finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds in 36 minutes of action as he proved unguardable for Loyola’s small lineup.
At this point the script is all too familiar, Michigan’s defense kept it alive while the offense struggled. Loyola made 51% of its 2-point attempts, but only made 1-of-10 3-point attempts. The 3-point gap that has powered this defense was in full effect as Michigan attempted 28 threes to Loyola’s 10.
It was Michigan’s ability to force turnovers that eventually turned the game. Loyola turned the ball over once every four possessions and Michigan forced 11 turnovers in 35 second half possessions (31%). Coming out of the 8 minute media timeout in the second half, Michigan forced 5 consecutive turnovers and a 3-point deficit became a 7-point lead.
Michigan’s 10 live ball steals not only were critical to its defense, they generated some extra tempo and pace in the game to jumpstart the offense.
Michigan’s offense took a long time to find itself. The Ramblers went small and switched everything and took the Wolverines completely out of their offense. Michigan only recorded 1 assist in the first half and the only thing that seemed to work in the opening 20 minutes was having Moritz Wagner crash the glass to rebound over a switched defender.
Switching defenses force isolation play and Michigan’s guards just couldn’t make plays. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson combined to go 0-of-10 from the floor in that opening half as the Wolverines managed just .67 points per possession.
The second half was a different story as Michigan figured increased the tempo and got the ball inside. The Wolverines racked up 47 points in 35 second half possessions — 1.34 points per trip, double their first half output.
The 3-point shot started to fall in the second half — 2-of-13 in the first, 5-of-15 in the second — but the difference came on the interior. Michigan got to the basket in the second half and finished almost everything — 11-of-13 on second half 2-pointers compared to 7-of-18 in the first — and that proved to be the difference.
Michigan will play for the National Championship on Monday night and it will have to beat Villanova to do it. The Wolverines haven’t played a top 5 seeded team throughout their run through March, but now they just need to figure out how to outplay the best team in the country for 40 minutes.
- Moritz Wagner: Loyola has no one on the floor who could contain Wagner and he played the game of his life (something he denied). Wagner made 7-of-9 shots inside the arc and hit 3-of-7 from deep while grabbing 15 rebounds. Early on, he was aggressive crashing the glass to pick up easy offensive rebounds over switched guards. He hit his 3-pointers, he drove to the basket and he was active all night. He was only credited with 1 assist, but he had a couple of great passes out of double teams that led to baskets. His ball screen hedging and hands were also fantastic and he recorded 3 steals in the victory.
- Charles Matthews: Matthews terrific run through the NCAA Tournament continued with another impressive performance. He recorded 17 points on 7-of-12 (1-2 3pt) shooting with 5 rebounds, an assist, 3 steals and a block. Matthews was the best athlete on the floor and he flew around making plays with a confidence that he just didn’t have earlier this year. When Michigan needed offense, Matthews was there to drive the baseline and get into the lane while keeping the composure to land on two feet and finish strong through contact.
- Jordan Poole: This game reminded me of December when Poole made a habit of coming off the bench and sparking Michigan’s offense into a comeback victory. He didn’t make a 3-pointer (0-of-3), but he was aggressive attacking the basket with 7 points on two layups and 3-of-4 free throw shooting. Michigan needed someone other than Charles Matthews to beat his man off the dribble and make a play at the rim and Poole was up for the challenge.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson could never find himself offensively after getting off to a poor start. He didn’t score and missed all six of his shots from the floor while turning the ball over 4 times to just 3 assists. Simpson’s defense down the stretch was terrific, but the Wolverines will need more from him on offense if they are going to cut down the nets on Monday night. His floater and layup game was off and his early 3-point attempts all rimmed out.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson was 2-of-6 from 3-point range and finished with 9 points in the win — surpassing the 6-point threshold. He got the start in the second half and made two 3-pointers in the final frame. His offense off the bench gave Michigan just enough in a game where Matthews and Wagner were the only two players who could get anything going.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman was just 2-of-11 from the floor with 2 assists in 33 minutes. His jump shot just could never find net and that seemed to fluster the rest of his game. John Beilein wondered afterward whether Abdur-Rahkman’s legs might be getting tired and outside of the Texas A&M game, he’s just 3-of-21 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers only recorded two rebounds in 12 minutes, but he gave Michigan quality minutes off the bench and had some great energy defensively.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons knocked in a huge 3-pointer in the second half to get the Wolverine offense in gear, cutting a 9-point deficit to 6, but he also turned the ball over twice in 11 minutes.
- Eli Brooks & Ibi Watson: Both reserve guards got thrown into the mixer late in the first half with Simpson sidelined by two fouls, but weren’t able to make an impact in limited minutes.