Michigan, the nation’s hottest team, powers through to title game with defense


Michigan?s men?s basketball team is the hottest in the nation. No others in Division I can make that claim.

Neither fellow NCAA Tournament finalist Villanova nor NIT champion Penn State nor CIT victors Northern Colorado nor any others have been unbeatable for nearly as long as the Wolverines. When coach John Beilein?s third-seeded squad ended No. 11 Loyola Chicago?s surprise run, 69-57, in the first semifinal in San Antonio on Saturday night, it extended its streak to 14 wins over nearly two months.

But to anyone watching the Wolverines and Ramblers battling it out in the first half, Michigan looked as frigid as it had since falling to Northwestern all the way back on Feb. 6. Point guard Zavier Simpson, who normally forces far more turnovers than he commits, coughed it up more times in the first 12:03 (three) than he had in any entire game since Jan. 6. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, so often a steady shooter for a team in need, missed his first seven attempts from the field. And as usual, the free throws didn?t fall as Michigan hit just 2 of 5 in the first period of play.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, they had Moritz Wagner. You?ve probably heard that line before. He turned missed shots into second chances, grabbing five of them on his own in the first 20 minutes. His personal 22.7 offensive rebounding percentage for the half almost exceeded Michigan?s season average as a team. He added 11 points to his 11 rebounds, leading all players in both categories.

Make no mistake: This was not a gimme game by any means. Loyola proved it deserved a spot in the Final Four and built a seven-point halftime lead through strong help defense and crisp passing. Beating the Ramblers would take more than just toughness and stingy defense. Michigan would eventually have to hit some shots.

It started with a drive and thunderous slam from Wagner to open the second half. From that point on, Michigan did as much flexing as it did scoring ? and it did plenty of scoring. The Wolverines threw punch after punch at a Loyola squad that seemed to have finally run out of magic, and they did it with smiles on their faces.

There?s no magic offensive formula that has brought Michigan to this point. Seven different players have scored at least 14 points in a game during this winning streak. When Abdur-Rahkman, Wagner and Charles Matthews haven?t scored, others have picked up the slack. But the defense has been stellar. Shots at the rim have been contested, and open looks beyond the arc have been rare. The ball movement that got Loyola this far was eventually stifled by the length of the Wolverines, who forced seven turnovers in the final 7:20.

If Michigan wants to improve its 1-5 record in championship games, that must continue. Beilein?s squad takes on a Villanova team comfortably atop the national rankings in offensive efficiency. The Wildcats? 13 three-pointers in the first half against Kansas on Saturday matched a Final Four record for an entire game ? a record they proceeded to destroy in the second half, when they hit five more. For comparison, Michigan?s five tournament opponents so far have hit 18 threes in total.

The Wolverines won?t likely be intimidated. Even in the bleakest of scenarios, their confidence has not wavered. Jordan Poole sunk a three, legs flailing, with a hand in his face to keep the season alive against Houston. Two weeks later, he and his teammates handed Loyola its first loss this season in a game in which it trailed at halftime. The tougher the odds, the more intent Michigan will be on defying them.

For almost every team in the NCAA Tournament, the magic runs out at some point. It did for both Loyola and Michigan on Saturday. The difference was that the Wolverines continued to push through with gritted teeth, just as they have done throughout the season. They?ve guaranteed themselves a spot under the confetti when the championship game ends on Monday night. Whether they?ll be champions or dejected runners-up remains to be seen.

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