SAN ANTONIO — It was only going to be a matter of time before Flexing Mo Wagner upstaged Sister Jean.
Michigan’s German import finished with 24 points and 15 boards, hitting a massive three with 6:52 left in the second half to tie a game that Loyola-Chicago had total control of as the Wolverines. That three came in a 12-0 game-changing run that turned a 47-42 deficit into a 54-47 lead. Fittingly, Wagner capped the run with his sixth offensive rebound, a put-back plus the foul that spanned three minutes of game-time.
In reality, it was Michigan’s defense that once again made the difference. The Wolverines forced turnovers on five straight Loyola-Chicago possessions during that stretch, keeping the Ramblers from even attempting a shot for more than three minutes of game-time.
And with that, John Beilein is off to his second national title game in six seasons with a 69-57 win, and in a game where the Wolverines looked dreadful for 20 minutes, it’s fitting that a team that is built around their ability to defend won because they found a way to score.
The first half on Saturday night was a slugfest that only too predictable for a pair of teams that slow the ball down and grind you with their defense while playing under the pressure of the Final Four for the first time.
Michigan jumped out to a 12-4 lead and led 15-10 before the Loyola surge started. The Ramblers would score the next nine points and close the half on a 19-7 surge to head into the break with a 29-22 lead. Mo Wagner and Charles Matthews combined for 19 of those 22 points, and the only other Wolverine to make a shot in the first half was center Jon Teske.
Zavier Simpson was terrible. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman might have been worse. They combined to shoot 0-for-10 from the floor with four turnovers. Things did not get much better early in the second half, not until Beilein made those adjustments.
Michigan scored 47 points in the second half. They shot 57 percent from the floor after shooting just 9-for-31 in the first 20 minutes. They made five threes, all of which came during a second-half surge that saw Loyola get outscored 24-6.
“They rotated so quickly,” Beilein said of Loyola’s defense. “And this has been our dilemma all year long: How are people going to guard a shooting five? And we have to adjust as the game goes on. We didn’t adjust very well.”
“But the second half, after we saw how [they defended our] actions. Then we needed to make some shots, we couldn’t make them for a while but then we did. And our young guys came in there, all of a sudden we took off like crazy.”
And therein lies the brilliance of Beilein.
He is, unquestionably, one of the brightest offensive minds in college basketball. Anyone that knows anything about basketball can tell you as much. If the fact that he is winning these basketball games with players that no one else wanted doesn’t tell you that, look at the success that his best players — Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinsin III — had with his program and then had in the NBA.
He knows how to get the best out of his best players.
And he did again on Saturday.
The changes weren’t that complicated. He went to a more offensive-minded lineup. He started Duncan Robinson in the second half. He put Jordan Poole on the floor, who scored six points during that Michigan surge. He let Charles Matthews get isolations. He found a way to beat Loyola’s switching defense — a defense that makes it very, very difficult to get shots out of offensive sets — and got his players to execute it.
It was actually pretty simple.
“We stopped running so many sets with ball-screens,” Robinson said, but in reality, the adjustment itself was less important than what it led to: A couple of threes going down. First it was Jaaron Simmons getting one to go. Then Robinson got one to drop, pounding on his chest and letting out a scream as he returned to the defensive end of the floor.
“It felt like a lid came off,” he said, and to a man, everyone in the Michigan locker room agreed. Once they saw a few shots go down, the entire energy changed. Suddenly they were playing with confidence and purpose and momentum and every other cliché that you can think of.
“When the shots were falling the defensive intensity picked up,” Simpson said.
He did that on a team that he has, with the help of his defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich, turned into one of the best defensive teams in college basketball.
Beilein is one of the best coaches in the sport, and within coaching circles he is respected as such.
But he doesn’t have a national title to his name, and now, on Monday night, he’ll have a chance to put one on his résumé.
And if he does, the question then becomes just how long he’ll have to wait until the Hall of Fame talk starts.