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Wolverines use 2nd half push to get to Sweet 16

03/20/2017, 12:59am EDT
By By KYLE ROWLAND BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Big games by Wagner, Wilson keep Michigan's magic run going

INDIANAPOLIS — In the media workroom at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, located in the bowels of the arena, the cacophony of cheers was thunderous.

The noise from Michigan’s locker room, some 100 yards away through a series of corridors, weaved through the concrete and reverberated off the walls.

A team that was 4-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 4 had just advanced to the Sweet 16, delivering its seventh consecutive win in a two-week run that is as miraculous as it is magnificent, another chapter in March’s maddening story.

Michigan’s 73-69 victory Sunday against second-seeded Louisville in a Midwest Region second-round game in the NCAA tournament might be the most improbable link in a 12-day continuum of zaniness.

“We’re more than a feel-good story,” said junior forward D.J. Wilson, who hit four free throws in the final 17 seconds. “We’re more than a Cinderella team.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines play No. 3 seed Oregon in a regional semifinal Thursday in Kansas City. The Ducks beat 11th-seeded Rhode Island 75-72.

A feeling of destiny started to creep into Michigan’s postseason script. After a disastrous final 70 seconds in the first half, the Wolverines found themselves trailing by eight.

With 1:11 left in the half, Michigan was somehow tied with Louisville (24-9) despite a haphazard 19 minutes. It appeared the 71 seconds would change the good fortunes for a prosperous Michigan team after the Cardinals scored the final eight points of the half.

“We were pretty talkative [in the locker room],” junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “There was positive criticism. We were just trying to stay focused and calm.”

The end-of-half avalanche was reminiscent of the 2013 national championship game when Louisville’s Luke Hancock made four consecutive 3-pointers to erase a 12-point deficit in the Cardinals’ 82-76 win.

But on Sunday, Michigan (26-11) responded with a dose of attacking Louisville off the dribble and using its athletic big men to counter the Cardinals’ size. The final score wasn’t the only proof in a winning strategy.

An assertive second half was telling. Moe Wagner scored 17 points and Wilson had 11, as Michigan shot 63 percent and outscored Louisville 45-33.

Instead of 3s, the Wolverines scored 40 points in the paint.

“People think we’re a 3-point shooting machine,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You can’t do that anymore unless you can drive the ball. We’ve worked hard to play one-on-one in the post. People are sticking with our shooters. It’s a big game-changer.”

It didn’t matter that Derrick Walton, Jr., finished with 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Wagner erupted for a career-high 26 points, Wilson had 17, and Zak Irvin added 11.

Michigan made the game’s first basket, led for 29 seconds, and didn’t lead again until there was 7:32 left in regulation. After that, Louisville could do no better than a brief tie.

The Wolverines manufactured a season-saving 17-6 run after trailing by nine with 16 minutes left. Louisville had a rim-rattling miss on a 3 that would have given them a 12-point advantage. When Michigan needed a momentum-swinging 3, Wagner delivered.

His long-range 3 with 6:41 left gave the Wolverines a 58-55 lead it never relinquished, but it was Walton who connected on perhaps the biggest shot. As Michigan clung to a two-point lead in the final minute, Walton made a hard-charging layup that gave the Wolverines extra cushion.

A few minutes later, Beilein, in the celebratory locker room, was dousing his players with water from a squirt gun, the euphoric screams audible through solid rock.

“We started a tradition of taking a shower, I guess, without going into the shower after good wins,” Beilein said. “It’s not stopping.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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Michigan's D.J. Wilson, left, prepares to shoot as Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell looks on during the first half of Sunday’s Midwest Region second-round game in Indianapolis. Wilson finished with 17 points, and made four critical free throws in the final 1

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