The hottest team in college basketball continues to burn its way through March. Michigan, which hasn’t lost since the first day of the month, used a second-half comeback to storm past Louisville to a 73-69 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday.
But the seventh-seeded Wolverines aren’t headed to the Sweet 16 because of the star you’ve become accustomed to hearing about. They’re moving on because of a pair of underappreciated forwards who rose to the occasion on the biggest of stages.
With Derrick Walton Jr. pestered all night by Louisville’s guards, sophomore forwards Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson combined for 43 points to lead the Wolverines to the second weekend.
Wagner had 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting. He hit his only 3-point attempt. Wilson had 17 points, and cooly sealed the game from the free throw line, making all four of his attempts in the final minute.
Wilson was cooking early for Michigan. He scored the Wolverines’ first six points on a smooth face-up jumper, a graceful layup in transition and a spinning left-handed hook from just below the foul line. Wilson, a redshirt sophomore, has emerged as one of the breakout stars of March. He has given Michigan’s offense an extra dimension down the stretch, and has made it even more dangerous than it already was. Wilson and fellow sophomore Wagner were outstanding all game on the offensive end against a long, athletic Louisville frontcourt.
Louisville’s bigs had their way early on when the Cardinals had the ball. Mangok Mathiang and Jaylen Johnson combined for 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first half. Louisville rebounded 50 percent of its missed shots, which made up for its guards hitting only three of their 16 field goal attempts.
Michigan kept up for much of the first half, but Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel hit late 3s to lead Louisville on an 8-0 run over the final 1:09 of the half. A questionable foul call on Wagner might have led to a four-point swing:
Gross call. pic.twitter.com/yfhnwd4og4
— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 19, 2017
Adel’s free throws put Louisville up eight at halftime. Louisville’s swingman had 10 first-half points. Two of them came on a posterization of Wilson:
Louisville led by as many as nine early in the second half, but Michigan stormed back behind Wagner and a scoring spurt from Zak Irvin. The senior scored six straight points to cut the lead to three.
With just under nine minutes to play, Michigan took its first lead since 2-0. Walton scooped up a loose defensive rebound, zoomed past Louisville’s defenders, and although his layup rolled off the rim, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was there for the putback.
The teams traded buckets before Michigan pulled ahead. Walton, who had struggled for much of the game, drilled a 3 from the top of the key. Wagner scored in the post, his 21st and 22nd points of the game, to put Michigan up six.
It was Wagner who keyed the second-half comeback. His ability to hit perimeter shots, get to the basket off the dribble and squirm by defenders in the post proved difficult for Louisville to stop. He scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half.
Louisville nearly engineered a wild late comeback of its own with full-court pressure. The Cardinals forced two turnovers and got to within two points in the final minute. Michigan had the ball, up two, with under 30 seconds to play. Walton stepped up, though, and drove to his right for a contested layup at the right side of the rim to push the lead back to four.
Mitchell twice cut the lead back to two with layups, but Wilson calmly knocked down four late free throws to restore four-point advantages.
The Wolverines will play against either Oregon or Rhode Island in Kansas City on Thursday. They’re the third Big Ten team to advance to the Sweet 16. Louisville’s elimination, meanwhile, means the ACC only has two teams left in the field, Duke and North Carolina. Both play later Sunday.
Michigan’s locker room celebration was understandably jubilant:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 19, 2017
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Watch Louisville’s Deng Adel throw down a dunk of the tournament candidate
• ‘Northwestern crying kid on a roller coaster of emotions during loss to Gonzaga
• Kenny Smith becomes middle man in Charles Barkley-LaVar Ball feud