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Cinderella Was No Match for Moritz Wagner

Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird … Mo Wagner? Michigan outlasted Loyola-Chicago and advanced to the national championship game behind an all-time great performance from its lanky German big man.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

More than 30 minutes into Saturday’s Final Four matchup between no. 3 seed Michigan and 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago, it appeared that college basketball’s biggest Cinderella story would continue for a few days longer. The Ramblers were ahead 47-44 heading into the under-eight timeout in the second half, and despite watching their lead shrink from as many as 10 points, they looked firmly in control.

That’s when Michigan’s Moritz Wagner won the game by his own damn self.

The junior big man was the only player in maize who had found any sort of rhythm in the first half, scoring 11 of Michigan’s 22 points and grabbing 11 of its 21 rebounds before the break. To say he was the catalyst for the Wolverines’ 69-57 comeback victory is a gross understatement.

First, he hit a 3-pointer to pull the game level at 47. A few possessions later, he assisted a Charles Matthews layup to put the Wolverines up by four. Then he sunk a layup with just under five minutes to play, sunk another layup with just under four minutes to play, and drained a deep ball to complete a four-minute stretch during which he accounted for 10 of Michigan’s 12 points. By the time the final horn sounded, Wagner had turned in the most dominant statline of his collegiate career: 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting, with a career-high 15 rebounds and three steals. It was a performance that quite literally put him on par with some of the best to ever play the sport.

For much of the game, Wagner was the only person on head coach John Beilein’s roster who seemed worthy of setting foot on the court. Michigan’s Matthews, Zavier Simpson, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman opened the game a combined 3-of-18 from the field and finished a disgusting 1-of-10 from beyond the arc. The lanky German, meanwhile, was an efficient 5-of-8 to begin the contest. It wasn’t just that Wagner was effective inside (though it should be noted that he ate the Ramblers alive in the paint, going 7-of-9); he also helped Michigan space the floor.

Wagner stands 6-foot-11, 245 pounds, and there aren’t many players in the country—let alone on Loyola-Chicago’s roster—who have the length or size to match up with him. Throw in the fact that he’s an adept 3-point shooter and that the Ramblers typically play at least four guards at a time, and it makes sense that Wagner completely took control. If this national semifinal game was a roller coaster, he was the only player tall enough to ride.

Loyola’s storybook run ended with an implosion. For much of Saturday evening, it outshot the Wolverines and used suffocating defense (ranked 19th nationally, per KenPom, entering the game) to frustrate Michigan’s guards. But the Ramblers looked lost during the last fourth of the game, and their offensive sets that were effective early came up empty time and again. Big man Cameron Krutwig, Loyola’s guiding light on the interior for most of the season, did his best to contain Wagner, scoring a team-high 17 points in the process. But Cinderella ultimately proved no match for March Madness’s answer to the Many-Faced God.

The Ramblers’ run will be remembered as an all-timer. Loyola was the fourth no. 11 seed ever to reach the national semifinal, and with a win it would’ve been the lowest seed ever to play for the championship. It would have certainly been the first title-bound program whose most recognizable figure was a 98-year-old nun. On another night with some different luck, Loyola might have prevailed. Saturday, though, belonged to Mo Wagner.