- Michigan's Mo Wagner is a 6'11" star who can do so much, and Loyola-Chicago had no answer for him in the national semifinals.
SAN ANTONIO — He stood there with all the other tourists Thursday night, his phone held high to capture the best photo possible of the old fort that no one can forget. Even with a few Michigan teammates tagging along for a look at the Alamo, Mo Wagner towered over everyone.
Saturday night, the 6'11" Berliner stood about a mile away in the Alamodome. The Wolverines had spent the previous six-plus minutes slashing Loyola-Chicago’s lead from 10 to three. Wagner, whose first-half production had consisted mainly of rebounds and putbacks, caught the ball at the top of the key with a little less than seven minutes remaining. He squared and launched. The ball sailed through the rim and paused briefly to graze the net on the way down. The Michigan students parked behind that basket went berserk, and Wagner pressed his thumbs to his forefingers to mimic an official’s three-point signal. The slick new warm-ups Nike sent to the Ramblers for the Final Four didn’t turn to rags, but the fairy tale ended there. The score was tied, but the game was over. Wagner towered over everyone.
For the first four games of Loyola-Chicago’s run through the NCAA tournament, the Ramblers looked like the better team every time. Sure, they faced some talented players—Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV and Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield, for example—but they had an answer for all of them. But a program like Loyola-Chicago has no answer for a player with Wagner’s skill set. The Ramblers may have a 98-year-old nun who delivers scouting reports, but the Wolverines had an honest-to-goodness unicorn, a near seven-footer who can post up, pick and pop, handle and shoot on the perimeter.
After Wagner’s three, Michigan raced away for a 69-57 win. The Wolverines will face Villanova on Monday with the national title on the line. They’ll need to get more out of several players who had terrible nights on Saturday, but anything close to a repeat performance from Wagner will give a group that has won 14 in a row a chance to cut down the nets. The junior scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, making him only the third player to compile at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal. The other two? Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon. “Relax. If you put it like that, it's obviously pretty cool,” Wagner said. “But to be honest, I kept looking possession by possession. We had trouble scoring the first half. We scored 22 points, and that was kind of the only way we found our way to the basket. Grab offensive rebounds and get second-shot opportunities.” Wagner’s teammates joked that he grabbed more rebounds Saturday than he did his entire freshman season. They weren’t far off. In 30 games in 2015-16, Wagner only had 28.
Michigan guards Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman combined to go 0 for 10 from the field in the first half as the Wolverines stumbled to a 29-22 deficit. The Ramblers did everything within their power to keep Michigan from running its offense through Wagner, fronting him in the post and leaving defenders on him even when guards slashed toward the basket. Perhaps the defining image of the Cinderella at the Final Four was 6’1” Loyola-Chicago guard Clayton Custer giving up almost a foot but denying Wagner the ball in the low post. The one thing the Ramblers couldn’t do was outleap Wagner, so he dominated on the glass—grabbing 11 rebounds in the half. “I don't really like the saying ‘Cinderella story,’ because it always includes somehow that they're not supposed to be there,” Wagner said. “And the way [Loyola-Chicago] is playing, it’s incredible.”
The Ramblers looked ready to pull away early in the second half when Custer hit a three-pointer and followed it with a jumper that stretched the lead to 10. But Michigan finally got a spark from someone other than Wagner. Guard Charles Matthews—playing his first season at Michigan after transferring from Kentucky—continued his magic March by attacking the basket and forcing the Ramblers to abandon their anybody-but-Mo strategy. On Michigan’s next possession after the Custer jumper, Matthews (17 points, five rebounds) converted a three-point play. He drove for a layup later that gave Michigan a four-point lead, and his press-break dunk with 1:34 remaining crushed any last bit of hope the Ramblers might have had.
But the Wolverines didn’t stop hustling. A few seconds later, Wagner nearly crashed into the announcers’ table while chasing a loose ball. Unlike their wrestling counterparts, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill were not warned in advance.
The collision broke Raftery’s glasses. “I hope he can afford a second pair of glasses,” Wagner said. “I feel bad. I hope he can read this weekend.”
By that point, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt was being wheeled from her seat and into to the tunnel so she could greet the Ramblers as they left the court. With a few seconds left, Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser pulled his starters so they could get an ovation as they left the court at the end of a magical run that perhaps only the Ramblers expected. Marques Townes, who played through a quad injury for much of the second half, got a huge hug from his coach. So did Custer and fellow guard Ben Richardson.
After the buzzer, Custer and Richardson walked off the court arm-in-arm. They began playing together in third grade in Overland Park, Kan., and won two state titles at Blue Valley Northwest High. They parted ways after high school but reunited when Custer transferred from Iowa State to Loyola-Chicago in 2016. Custer, who had to sit out a year after transferring, has one more season with the Ramblers. Richardson, meanwhile, played his final game in maroon and gold on Saturday. He tried to catch his tears in his jersey as the pair stepped down from the raised court. “Nothing made me happier than taking the floor with him and competing with him,” Richardson said of Custer. “Having him join me in Chicago was a dream come true, and we did a lot of things that people probably didn't think that we could do. And we proved a lot of people wrong. And I love that guy to death, and we'll never forget this.”
A few steps after he left the court, Richardson found Sister Jean.
But the Ramblers weren’t the only ones who stopped to pay tribute to the lady we’ll remember long after this tournament ends. Michigan freshman Jordan Poole, he of the buzzer-beater to beat Houston and seven points on Saturday, also said hello. “I told her I was a big fan,” Poole said.
Throughout the tournament, the Ramblers clung to the mantra “no finish line” to avoid getting complacent after reaching any particular milestone. After the game, Moser pointed out that the phrase could also apply to the members of this team as the years pass. “There’s no end,” he said. “We’re going to be connected for life. I tell them in the recruiting process, you're not making a four-year commitment at Loyola to play for us, you're making a lifetime relationship. And that's what we have. That's what these guys have. It's a lifetime relationship.”
In the Ramblers’ locker room, freshman Cameron Krutwig—who played beyond his years throughout the tournament—dispensed the kind of wisdom that doesn’t usually flow from a guy who was in high school this time last year. “It stinks right now. And it hurts right now,” Krutwig said. “Once we get over it and realize what we did, the memories will outweigh the pain.”
A few moments earlier, Wagner had walked out of Michigan’s locker room. He saw a golf cart holding several teammates waiting to take them to the postgame press conference. “I’m definitely going up there,” said Wagner, who played 36 exhausting minutes. “I’m not walking.”
Wagner hopped on, and the golf cart pulled away. In its place, going in the other direction, was Sister Jean. She rolled out of the Alamodome, and the NCAA tournament rolled on toward one final showdown for the national title.