SAN ANTONIO -- Moritz Wagner was asked on Friday afternoon about how he would go into Saturday's Final Four game against Loyola-Chicago in terms of mindset. After the stock response about how it doesn't change regardless of opponent, the Michigan forward offered a summation.
"Aggressive and confident, as always, and we see what happens," he said.
Well, what happened is Wagner came out and dominated Loyola-Chicago.
And what happened is the Wolverines are now playing for a national title Monday night after coming back to beat the Ramblers 69-57.
Wagner finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, excellent numbers to be sure, but even bigger when you consider the rest of the team shot 4-for-23 in the first half and Wagner was the only source of both offense and rebounding for Michigan for long stretches.
"I kept looking possession by possession -- we had trouble scoring the first half," Wagner said. "We scored 22 points and that was kind of the only way we found our way to the basket, grab offensive rebounds and get second-shot opportunities. And I honestly just tried to do my job. The shots were falling the second half. It's a lot more fun when the ball goes [in] the net."
Down three with less than seven minutes left, Wagner caught the ball in the post, dribbled out to the 3-point line and buried a 3 that tied the score. Loyola-Chicago would never be even again. After forcing a couple of turnovers by Cameron Krutwig, Wagner got a layup to extend the lead to four ... and then got a tip dunk and foul ... and then made a layup ... and then hit a 3-pointer.
By the time Wagner's personal 10-4 run ended, Michigan was up eight and the Wolverines had finally ended Loyola-Chicago's Cinderella run.
All season, Wagner has been something of a harbinger for Michigan's offense. When he plays well -- 21 points against Texas A&M, 20 points in the Big Ten tournament against Nebraska, 27 points at Michigan State in January -- the Wolverines are at their best offensively. When he's struggling, Michigan's offense can bog down. It bogged down Saturday night for the first 20-plus minutes, but Wagner continued to attack. He couldn't find openings with his usual pick-and-pop routine, so he went after the ball on the offensive glass. He drove to the basket when his outside shot wasn't there.
Michigan continued to lock down defensively in the NCAA tournament, holding Loyola-Chicago to less than one point per possession -- the fourth time they've done that in the NCAA tournament. (The lone exception to that trend, by the way, is the Texas A&M game the Wolverines won by 27 points.) The Ramblers turned it over 11 times in the second half and shot just 1-for-10 from 3-point range.
Wagner, not known for his defensive prowess, chipped in with key plays during a game-changing, four-minute stretch late in the second half when Loyola turned it over on five straight possessions and Michigan turned a three-point deficit into a 10-point lead. Wagner finished with three steals, and he bothered Krutwig down the stretch.
"The steals were really big, just to stop the possessions," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "And then they didn't get too many second-half chances. So we had 10 steals. We average six a game. That was the big difference in the game."
More important, Wagner bought Michigan time until the rest of the Wolverines arrived in San Antonio for the game. Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had perhaps their worst games of the season, while the Wolverines shot 2-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half as a team. Wagner had to do so much in the opening 20 minutes, he looked exhausted toward the end of the half. After the game, he said he was lying down in the locker room at halftime. But without him, a seven-point halftime deficit would have been worse.
"Moe was just ready," senior guard Jaaron Simmons said. "He was ready from the jump. He did his thing, had a double-double in the first half. He's just ready for the moment. He came out and gave it his all, and allowed us to work our way into the game."
But every time it looked as if Loyola could pull away and really put separation between it and Michigan, there was Wagner.
And there was Wagner, with less than 90 seconds left in the game, diving into press row for a loose ball. While climbing back onto the court, the TBS crew reached out to help him up. But Wagner high-fived them instead.
"I was happy there was the table over there otherwise I would've fallen, probably," Wagner said. "But I heard I broke Coach Raftery's glasses -- I feel bad for that. I'm happy nothing else got broken.
He had carried Michigan this far -- what was another few steps?