By Michael Williams
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Basketball is a game of runs and adjustments. At halftime, Michigan coach John Beilein made the adjustment that the seventh-seeded Wolverines would need to secure the 73-69 upset over the second-seeded Louisville Cardinals.
The Cardinals came into the game with the 19th ranked perimeter defense, holding teams to an average of 30.9 percent from behind the arc. It was this defense that would force the change from Beilein. Louisville’s goal was to limit Michigan’s 3-point attempts. “We realize we have to limit their attempt, not even contest it,” . We have to make them do something else other than shoot the 3,” said Anas Mahmoud, Louisville’s 7-foot junior forward, had said on Saturday.
Michigan struggled from behind the arc in the first half with 3-for-11 shooting. The Wolverines struggled to deal with the length of Louisville and were pushed far back behind the line.
It was due to this advantage that the Cardinals were able to head into the locker room leading 36-28 at the half. That is when Beilein conceded that changes needed to be made. “The end of the first half, I thought was a defining moment for our team in this particular game,” Beilein said. “We could have approached that differently.”
The difference was Moritz Wagner, Michigan’s 6-11 sophomore. The Wolverines fed Wagner the ball in the post, and he made the Cardinals pay. Moritz fished the game with a game and career-high 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting and a team-high seven rebounds.
Michigan (26-11) advanced to face the Oregon Ducks in a Midwest semifinal game at Kansas City on Thursday night.
“In these kind of games,” said Duncan Robinson, Michigan’s senior swingman, “you gotta have guys step up, that is something that guys like Wagner can do. We work on these situations in practice.”
Beilein emphasized the versatility that has allowed the Wolverines to produce an unexpected post-season run. “People think we’re a 3-point shooting machine,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore unless you can drive the ball or both D.J. (Wilson) and Mo. We’ve worked hard…people are sticking with our shooters.”
Wagner also credited practice for his success in the paint. “We’ve been working a lot on the switching defense, getting the ball in the post, being aggressive down there as well,” he said. “I think I’m just very confident because of our practice, because of the work we all put in, and it paid off today.”
As the half went on, Wagner seemed to play with a greater confidence. This confidence boost affected the team as well. Wilson, a junior forward who had experienced his own struggles in the game said, “Mo just has the mentality of he’s not scared in the moment, and I think you definitely saw that today. Down the stretch, when he got the ball, he knew he was going to make a play, and we watched him.”
These changes proved effective. After only shooting 36.7 percent in the first half, the Wolverines went 17 for 27, for 63 percent. The Wolverines didn’t completely abandon the 3-point shot, shooting 3 for 6. However, they didn’t make a 3-point attempt until Wilson hit from range with 10:33 left in the game.
By taking the game into segments, the Wolverines were able to take the lead for only the second time with 8:53 to play. “So now we’re training every four minutes,” Beilein said. “We get to huddle up, and we talk about it, and then we try to get the game to evolve in the way they’re playing us.”
A game removed from committing just four turnovers, the Wolverines continued to protect the ball well. They gave up the ball six times, allowing 11 points off turnovers, but matched that total for themselves on 11 Cardinal turnovers.
Wilson overcame early shooting struggles to finish with a 6-for-13 day for 17 points. Defensively, Wilson made a play that sealed the game for the Wolverines. With five seconds left to play, Wilson made the third of his three blocks on a 3-point attempt from Cardinal sophomore Donovan Mitchell.
Whether is from deep, or in the paint, the Wolverines have proven to the nation that they are willing to do what it takes to win. “That’s been our identity in the last month and a half, finding different ways to win,” said senior guard Derrick Walton, Jr. “Whether it’s the 3-ball or not, it’s finding multiple different ways to win and taking what the game gives us.”