INDIANAPOLIS – Water dripped off the flat-screen TV in the Michigan locker room, residue from John Beilein’s postgame assault on his team.
In what has become a tradition during Michigan’s magical March run, the players doused their coach with cups of water after yet another victory – this time an upset of No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69. But on this occasion, Beilein returned fire.
“He went out and bought a Super Soaker,” said suitably impressed Michigan big man D.J. Wilson. “He started spraying it and squirting everybody.”
Beilein is a pleasant man, but the words wacky, zany or madcap would never be used to describe him. He’s pretty serious. Dabo Swinney, he’s not.
For the 64-year-old coach to break out a water gun and hose down his team, you know these are the best of times for the Wolverines.
“We didn’t expect that from coach Beilein, but that shows how happy he is,” Wilson said.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 19, 2017
Michigan marches on, into a Sweet 16 that certainly seemed improbable as recently as March 1. The Wolverines have won seven straight, soaring ever since that scary plane mishap on the way to the Big Ten tournament. But this is less a team of destiny than a team of determination, a veteran bunch that has raised its collective game for a memorable run.
“It’s a feel-good story, but we’re more than just a Cinderella story,” Wilson said. “We’re here to play and we’re taking it seriously.”
The latest win in the streak is the greatest yet. The Wolverines rallied from a nine-point hole against the Cardinals, making all the right plays in the final 14 minutes.
This one was unlike most of the previous victories in the winning streak. This was not point guard Derrick Walton Jr. carrying the team, as he so often has. This was not a strafing from the perimeter, like the 16 3-pointers Michigan dropped on Oklahoma State on Friday.
This was Moritz “Mo” Wagner to the rescue.
The sophomore center scored a career-high 26 points, repeatedly punishing Louisville for its switching man-to-man defense that often left guards trying to handle the 6-foot-11 German. The strategy was great for corralling Walton, who scored just 10 points – his fewest in more than a month. It forced someone else other than the hottest player in the tournament to beat the Cardinals.
And Wagner was that guy. He scored on post-ups, on drives, and on one very big 3-pointer that gave Michigan the lead for good, 58-55.
“Mo just has the mentality of he’s not scared in the moment, and I think you definitely saw that today,” said Wilson, Wagner’s roommate the past two years. “Down the stretch, when he got the ball, he knew he was going to make a play, and we watched him.”
It was a Wagnerian opera, a virtuoso performance, but something of a departure. Wagner is a classic Beilein post player, skilled and capable of shooting from deep. Yet he needed to primarily be a low-post powerhouse Sunday, and he delivered.
“Because they shoot the ball so well, the plan was to basically try to switch everything,” Louisville center Mangok Mathiang said. And once they saw that, they try to take advantage of our guards, and the big fella, they did a good job of working on getting into the paint.”
After controlling the first 35 minutes of the game, Louisville couldn’t counter the Wolverines’ late surge. The Cardinals battered Michigan on the glass in the first half, but were largely neutralized in that area in the final 20 minutes. After taking a 47-38 lead, they were outscored 35-22 the rest of the way and sent packing.
The biggest issue for Louisville was the 0-for-9 shooting nightmare for point guard Quentin Snider. Twice when the Cardinals had nine-point leads, he had open looks from the 3-point line to push the lead to double digits and missed.
His counterpart, Walton, made two huge baskets after being contained so well for so long. The first was a step-back three from the top of the key over 7-footer Anas Mahmoud for a 61-57 lead, and the last was a drive around Tony Hicks and Mathiang for what would be the biggest basket of the game with 29.4 seconds left.
“He was kind of the head of the team,” Hicks said of Walton. “Tried to make it tough. It wasn’t enough.”
Nothing has been enough to derail this Michigan express. The Wolverines will move on to Kansas City now with all the momentum and good karma in the world, and will be a very tough out.
The postgame water fights may keep going all the way to Arizona, and all the way to April.
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Protesters fly Confederate flag next to NCAA tournament arena in Greenville
• Michigan keeps memorable March run alive, advances to Sweet 16
• ‘Northwestern crying kid on a roller coaster of emotions during loss to Gonzaga