SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Keep your motor running, a Michigan assistant coach yelled to a player. The momentum had finally swung, late in Saturday’s opening NCAA national semifinal inside the Alamodome, the favored Wolverines no longer destined to be bit players in the tale of an elderly nun and her out-of-nowhere school.
Their motor ran to the end — Michigan 69, Loyola-Chicago 57 — as the Wolverines advanced to Monday’s NCAA title game on a night when they were outshot from the field and the foul line and made only a quarter of their three-pointers.
That was enough, though. Loyola wasn’t set up to make threes and by the end Michigan’s defense contested every dribble.
“It was as tough a locker room as I’ve seen,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “They believed that they belong. They believed. They wanted to advance.”
Just when you started to believe that “Jean’s Plan” sign held up across from Loyola bench, Michigan came up with a strong defensive possession, another offensive rebound right after, a three-pointer by Duncan Robinson, a transfer from Division III Williams.
Moe Wagner, with his mom in the crowd from Germany, was a bundle of energy and also Michigan’s top outside threat. Twice, Wagner chased loose balls right off the raised stage. He finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds.
“I just tried to go in the game, take what the opponent is giving me, what the game is giving me, stay emotionally solid and don’t get emotionally drunk, and it worked out today” Wagner said.
Down by 10 earlier in the half, Michigan had grabbed the lead with 6 minutes and change to go after three straight scores and four straight stops. A fifth straight stop was followed by another Wolverines score, NCAA top performer Charles Matthews getting free inside.
“Not dropping our heads, that was the main thing,” Michigan’s Jaaron Simmons said. “We haven’t been down in a game for a long time. So not dropping our heads was one of the main adjustments we had to make.”
On a Final Four Saturday when Bill Walton looked like his usual enthusiastic self pregame except this time Walton was enthused to get a photo with a 98-year-old nun, and the little crowd that formed followed Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt right out to the court, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a Jesuit school by Lake Michigan would hold its own.
Even early in the second half, the Ramblers expanded a lead and began playing loose. Loyola guard Clayton Custer put up a soft baseline jumper, allowing for a friendly rim, and high-fived his head coach, Porter Moser, on his way by.
Loyola hadn’t made any first-half three-pointers, but that wasn’t such a big deal since the Ramblers tried only three. Michigan tried 13, made 2. Loyola somehow had a 29-22 intermission lead, despite not getting a field goal for over 7 ½ minutes.
Loyola had trailed by 12-4 early, having trouble finding lanes to the hoop. Michigan, however, couldn’t take advantage of the good looks it was getting, seemed reduced to getting to offense from crashing the offensive boards. At one point, 13 of its 19 points were second-chance points. At the break, Michigan’s Wagner had 11 points and 11 rebounds, almost single-handedly keeping the Wolverines above water.