Ninety-nine seconds remained when Sister Jean made her exit. The sudden sensation – if any 98-year-old can be labeled as such – had watched from a courtside location, not far from where Bill Walton was doing his stylized commentary for Westwood One. One day after she’d become the first nun to hold a Final Four press conference, Sister Jean’s long moment in the spotlight was at its end. As was her team’s.
Loyola-Chicago gave it a go. The Ramblers led by seven points at halftime, by 10 with 13 minutes to play. They weren’t scoring the way they had in the South Regional at Philips Arena, but they were guarding like crazy. The thought of this becoming the first double-digit seed to play for the national championship didn’t seem at all fanciful.
And then it did. Over the final 11:24, Loyola was outscored 32-12. Michigan – a No. 3 seed working against a No. 11 – finally began to look like a Power 5 conference champ facing a very good mid-major. Size and strength and speed began to tell. The Wolverines had mostly jammed Loyola’s sleek offense all game, and when they eventually started to make shots … well, that was that. Final score: Michigan 69, Loyola 57.
The Wolverines arrived here as the least-discussed of the four teams. They weren’t cuddly Loyola or favored Villanova or Kansas, the other No. 1 seed. They were the team that won a West Regional that had broken open when Texas A&M felled No. 2 North Carolina and Florida State stunned No. 1 Xavier in the round of 32. This didn’t seem a vintage John Beilein assemblage – this Michigan is better at defending than scoring – but it has a very good big man in 6-foot-11 Moritz Wagner, and he was the reason the Wolverines were even close at the half.
Wagner had 11 points and 11 rebounds in a first half that saw Michigan make almost as many turnovers (eight) as shots (nine). Three of those buckets were Wagner putbacks. Michigan outscored Loyola 13-4 on second-chance points over the first 20 minutes, but that was about all the Wolverines did right, at least on offense. Point guard Zavier Simpson missed three shots and lost the ball three times. Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman took seven shots, missing them all.
The second half commenced with Loyola consolidating gains, which made you recall a similar semifinal – in 2013 at the Georgia Dome, which Wichita State seized an early lead against tournament favorite Louisville and held it long into the second half. In the end, Wichita State – then of the Missouri Valley, just as Loyola is now – was undone by weight of numbers and the shooting of Louisville sub Luke Hancock. In the end, this Loyola probably wasn’t as good as that Wichita, which was a No. 9 seed. In the end, both wound up falling one game short of Monday night.
Down five with eight minutes left, Michigan finally took control. Loyola’s Marques Townes appeared to hurt himself hoisting a 3-pointer, which became an air ball. Freshman Jordan Poole, whose buzzer shot saved the Wolverines against Houston in Round 2, drove for a hoop. The Ramblers’ next five possessions went thusly: Turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover. With 4:59 to go, Michigan led 54-47, Wagner having contributed a 3-point basket and a 3-point play off yet another offensive rebound.
Said Loyola coach Porter Moser: “We had that run with the turnovers. It snowballed on us. And they hit some shots. I don't think it was any one thing. We tried to space it and cut hard. Their length. They're really good defensively. They close the gaps. We always talk about getting the domino going. They closed the gap of opportunity really fast. We've done a good job all year of spacing it and moving it.”
The Ramblers had, up until the moment when they didn’t. Many of the reasons Loyola made it this far wound up being reasons it went no further. Donte Ingram, whose trey beat Miami at the horn in Round 1, finished with two points. Center Cameron Krutwig scored 17 points but made six turnovers. Ben Richardson, MVP of the South Regional, had four points and three turnovers.
Nothing that happened Saturday invalidated Loyola’s run in any way, but nothing that happened over the final eight minutes suggested the Ramblers would have stood much of a chance against Villanova in the final.
Michigan, on the other hand, will have a shot. A team that can defend and that has a big man capable of notching 24 points and 17 rebounds in a Final Four game – and also knocking Bill Raftery’s reading glasses askew with a lunge onto press row – stands a chance against anybody. And after overcoming the mighty will of Sister Jean, what’s there to fear from Jay Wright?
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