INDIANAPOLIS – Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t call out Moritz Wagner by name Sunday, but everyone knew whom Walton was talking about. Walton made sure Louisville, most of all, knew about his tall teammate.
Wagner, Michigan’s sophomore forward from Berlin, scored a career-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting, including 9 points in the final 6 minutes, 41 seconds. The Wolverines came from behind to knock off Louisville, 73-69, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The win advances No. 7 Michigan to the Midwest Region semifinals in Kansas City on Thursday against either No. 3 Oregon or No. 11 Rhode Island.
Wagner’s 3-pointer with 6:41 left broke a 55-55 tie. It was the only trey he attempted all game, and Michigan never trailed again. In a game that was supposed to be Michigan’s perimeter prowess against second-seeded Louisville’s tenacious defense, the Wolverines prevailed by repeatedly going to their inside game. Junior D.J. Wilson scored 17 points, including the final four on free throws in the final 17 seconds.
“Credit to the German and D.J., they played great [Sunday],” Walton said. “[Wagner]’s been a problem all year. He’s a matchup nightmare. When we spread it out and put him in space, I think we’re playing to his strength, and he was able to use it [Sunday night].”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 19, 2017
Wagner has scored in double figures 23 times this season. Before Sunday, he had reached that level one time in the previous five games and three times in the last nine. He had 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the first half, but a late 8-0 run by Louisville had Michigan in a 36-28 deficit at halftime.
Wagner scored 8 points on 4 layups in Michigan’s first 6 possessions of the second half.
“Going into a game, you don’t know who’s going to go off,” Wagner said. “I just let the game come to me. Don’t force anything and see what happens. [Sunday], I got a couple easy ones early. Therefore, my confidence level was high.”
Michigan was smart enough to not force outside shots against a Louisville defense primed to smother those attempts. Two days after making 16 3-pointers against Oklahoma State, Michigan was 6-of-17 shooting from behind the arc. It was the third time this season Michigan didn’t attempt at least 20 3s in a game.
The Wolverines were 6-of-19 in a 53-50 win against Texas in December and 7-of-14 in an 85-69 loss at Illinois in January.
Walton still managed 10 points but was 3-of-13 from the field. He made 2 of the 7 3-pointers he took, but he had 7 rebounds and 6 assists with no turnovers.
“I heard coach [Rick] Pitino on the sideline yelling a lot every time I caught the ball. They wanted to make it tough for me, and they did a great job,” Walton said. “As far as not turning the ball over, I’m just trying to make sure I make the right play every time and be aggressive.”
Getting the ball to “the German” was a good decision Sunday. Walton had 2 assists on Wagner’s first 4 baskets of the second half.
“He’s just not afraid of the moment,” Walton said. “He’s one of those guys that can get it going quick. The first couple of minutes of the second half, I knew when he saw the ball go through the basket he was going to have a good night. That makes my job easy; either we score or he gets fouled going to the basket.”
Wagner, who is 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, comes with the reputation of many European big men – he’s more comfortable playing on the outside and isn’t a physical player. He’s had 13 games in which he’s made multiple 3s, including twice draining 4 from long range.
That wasn’t his game, or Michigan’s, against Louisville. If the Cardinals were going to take away the perimeter, Michigan was going to take the ball inside. Despite being down 8 at halftime, that approach turned around the game.
“If we’ve got a 3, we’re going to shoot it. We’ve got five shooters, but we’re going to try to be versatile and take what people give us,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They were really pressed up on us, so we posted up more, and we took the ball to the basket. The kids really believed and practiced hard to be in that position.”