SAN ANTONIO – Someone had to be the villain Saturday, and that was Michigan’s role going up against America’s sweetheart Sister Jean and her Cinderella squad, Loyola Chicago.
The Wolverines also had to carry the banner for the Big Ten, a league trying to overcome a down year by ending an 18-year national championship drought.
The bad guys from a perceived bad league are moving on. And the 11th-seeded Ramblers’ storied run finally came to an end in a 69-57 loss to third-seeded Michigan in the first national semifinal at the Alamodome.
“They definitely deserve to be here,” said Wolverines junior forward Mo Wagner, who finished with 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting and 15 rebounds. “The whole villain thing, you guys love to write about it, talk about it, but at the end of the day it’s just basketball.”
Wagner became the third player in 40 years to record a 20-point, 15-rebound game in the Final Four, joining Hall of Famers Larry Bird (Indiana State, 1979) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston, 1983).
“Wow, if you put it like that, obviously it’s pretty cool,” Wagner said with a smile. “Shots were falling in the second half. It’s a lot more fun when the ball goes into the net.”
Wolverines coach John Beilein had a squad finish as the national runner-up to Louisville in 2013. Monday, Michigan (33-7) will be the seventh Big Ten team to play for the title since Michigan State’s last victory for the conference in 2000.
“This team had no attention at all,” Beilein said. “Until we went up to beat Michigan State [Jan. 13], we weren’t nationally ranked. Now we’re playing on Monday night. This team is very appreciative.”
Getting all the way to the Final Four should be enough to give Loyola and Rambler Nation something to remember for the rest of their lives.
After all, the Missouri Valley Conference champions had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1985 and last won the national title during a racially charged March Madness run in 1963. Cameron Krutwig and Clayton Custer led Loyola (32-6) with 17 and 15 points, respectively.
Michigan and Loyola were two of the top teams in the country in defensive efficiency — and it played out that way as a grind-it-out affair in the first half.
The Ramblers, who ranked third nationally field goal percentage, went scoreless from the field for nearly a 7½-minute stretch. After trailing by eight points, Loyola used a 25-10 run to take a 29-22 halftime lead.
At 6-foot-11, Wagner had the size advantage and finished with a double-double in the first half. But Loyola’s Donte Ingram flew in for an offensive board and putback at the halftime buzzer.
Trying to become the lowest seed to ever win it all, Loyola players ran into the locker room only 20 minutes away from competing for the national crown, with Ramblers faithful standing up and cheering.
Custer scored seven consecutive points to give Loyola a 41-31 lead at the 14:06 mark of the second half, but that’s when the Wolverines pounced outscoring the Ramblers 38-16 the rest of the way.
After Wagner’s three-pointer tied the score, Jordan Poole’s two free throws gave Michigan its first second-half lead at 49-47 with 6:20 to play. A minute later, Wagner was flexing his muscles after a putback plus the foul, silencing the Loyola crowd. Michigan eventually extended its lead to 61-51.
The Ramblers, who were outscored 19-6 on second-chance points, crumbled under the pressure late with 11 of their 17 turnovers in the second half, including six in a row.
“They did what great teams do,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “I want to congratulate them, but I also stand here, sit here, and cannot be more proud of a group than I am of this group.”