SAN ANTONIO – This was halftime Saturday night. Loyola Chicago’s miracle flight was still airborne, the Ramblers leading Michigan 29-22. Sister Jean was all smiles in her courtside box. One player had kept the Wolverines afloat, because their offense had looked like Moe and four guys in maize wearing blindfolds.

Moe Wagner. Berlin’s gift to Michigan. He had a double-double in the first 20 minutes, while the rest of the Wolverines were 4-for-23. Loyola was sensing more magic.

The Michigan locker room?

 
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As C.J. Baird would say later: “Coach Beilein came in and told us that we did not play good basketball at all. Jordan (Poole) and Zavier (Simpson) and everybody else was saying that this was some of the worst basketball we had played all year.”

Or as Ibi Watson called it, “a little motivational.”

But what about the big guy who was uncharacteristically silent? The one who had gone into the Alamodome stands a couple times chasing loose balls as if the night depended on them? What about Moe Wagner?

“He didn’t say a lot,” his backup Jon Teske mentioned. “A lot of other guys did. He usually talks more, but he was kind of sitting in the back over here. I think he was mentally locked in.”

So everyone would notice, especially the Loyola Ramblers. It ended 69-57, Michigan taking over the game with a 30-12 spree, and Wagner putting up 24 points and 15 rebounds. How good is that? The only other two players to ever do it in a Final Four semifinal the past 40 years were named Larry Bird and Akeem Olajuwon.

“If you put it like that, that’s probably cool,” he said. “I honestly just tried to do my job.”

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No wonder Wagner looked a little weary when he left the locker room after the game for the press conference room. Care for a golf cart ride, the NCAA asked him? “Definitely. I’m not walking.”

Back in the Wolverines room, his teammates were not surprised at what he had done.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: “Especially on a stage like this. That’s as good as you can play. We love that he’s on our team.”

Baird: “Moe wants it so much, he really shows it on the court.”

Duncan Robinson: “I think he just feeds off the energy. He’s a pretty emotional person. You get on stage like this, it brings out the best in him.

“I remember early on when he first got on campus, just showing no fear, going at guys, sticking his tongue out when he made shots, things he’s become known for.”

Robinson and Wagner have lived together, so Robinson has picked up a little of the language. “He mostly yells at himself in German. Sometimes we’ll go back and forth. My German vocabulary is very limited. It’s mostly expletives, so don’t ask me what they are.”

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OK, so what about this?

Was hatten sie ohne Moe gemach?

What would they have done without Moe?

Survive-and-advance is still in style, even at the Final Four. Nothing elegant or beautiful. Just two-plus hours of Michigan grit, and Wagner holding things together until the sheer tonnage of the Wolverines defense finally subdued Loyola.

Down went Cinderella, with a ton of respect from the team that finally solved the riddle.

“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 they’re playing, it’s incredible.”

Added John Beilein: “I don’t know if they had magic on their side. They’re good. They stopped being a Cinderella when they got to the (Sweet) 16 to me.

“We see some really good defenses in the Big Ten. Really good. I would argue it’s the best defensive league in the country. And we saw some great defense (from Loyola).”

Besides, Michigan can claim its own underdog tales.

Wagner, for instance. A kid who grew up watching the Final Four from across an ocean, and was thrilled the day a familiar face from his TV screen showed up in his home. John Beilein.

“I watched this my entire childhood, this Final Four here,” he said. “And I knew him from the final game (in 2013). It’s kind of crazy now, we’re in it together.

“I had no idea back then. As a little kid, to see him in my living room, that’s something really special for a couple of hours, just to see my family and see where I’m from. It’s a really cool story.”

So are the Wolverines, a team rarely mentioned a month ago, when they were a rather pedestrian 8-5 in the Big Ten. Now look where they are, carried there Saturday by the big guy from Germany who sat quietly in an aroused halftime locker room, and focused on what he had to do.

At the end, with Loyola finally vanquished, Michigan’s Poole ran over to Sister Jean. “I told her I was a big fan,” he said later.

But she’s going back to Chicago now. The Wolverines are playing for the national championship.

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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