In Michigan and Loyola, Two Sides of Final Four Dreams

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SAN ANTONIO – Dreams die hard at this point of the season.

Reaching the Final Four semifinals is the goal of 351 Division I teams because achieving that goal leads to Monday night and the possibility of winning a national championship. But only one team can achieve that dream.

The emotional rush of winning four games over the first two weekends creates the feeling of eating too much Halloween candy. Teams that walk down the backstage hallways to their locker rooms here at the Alamodome see blown-up action photos of themselves plastered to the walls.

Attendants in golf courts to and from news conferences where reporters hang on every word and stenographers dutifully record every word.

The dream for Loyola Chicago was crushed in the fashion that is typical for teams that lose on Saturday. There was not enough of this, too much of that.

The iron was unkind on too many occasions and when Michigan got the momentum trending in its direction, the tsunami was too great for even Sister Jean’s thoughts and prayers.

There still hasn’t been a double-digit seed survive the semifinals. The third-seeded Wolverines made sure of that with a closing kick that would have won any marathon. Michigan (33-7) at times appeared disjoined and disinterested as Loyola (32-6) was treating the Wolverines like it had treated and defeated Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State.

But those maroon and gold scarves that make the school look more like Gryffindor than a Division I team overheated and constricted the Ramblers when it came down to winning time. From the 7:20 to the 5:01 mark, Loyola committed five turnovers on five consecutive possessions.

That fueled Michigan’s 12-0 run that erased a three-point lead on the way to a 69-57 final score. Over the last nine minutes, the Wolverines had a 27-10 edge.

“They did what great teams do,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “They capitalized on that run where we made (five) turnovers in a row. “When I walked off the floor I was asked what I said to my team. I said the more you invest in something, the harder it is to give up. And they didn’t want to end it.” 

Michigan, which won its only national championship in 1989, will play for the national championship for the first time since losing to Louisville in 2013. The Wolverines will go from favorite to underdog as they’re facing No. 1 seed Villanova, whose remarkable 3-point shooting decimated Kansas, 95-79, in Saturday’s second semifinal.

The Wildcats made 18-of-40 – yes, 18-of-40 – a Final Four record for makes and equaling the record for attempts. Villanova literally shot the lights out. (In the second half, the Alamodome ribbon board malfunctioned and was turned off for a few minutes.)

The law firm of Wagner & Matthews won their day in court for Michigan. Sophomore guard Charles Matthews, who started his career at Kentucky, scored 17 points – most on drives to the basket that were crucial when the offensive flow clogged.

Moritz Wagner, a 6-11 junior from Berlin, Germany became just the third player with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a Final Four semifinal; he finished with 24-17 to join the Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird. Fast and iconic company.

The Dirk Nowitzki wannabe thought that stat was “cool.”

“Honestly just tried to do my job,” Wagner said. “The shots were falling the second half. It’s a lot more fun when the ball goes to the net.”

Late in the game, Wagner tried to save a ball from going out of bounds and stepped through the TBS telecast location. Nobody was injured … but for Bill Raftery’s reading spectacles. Raf went from “onions” to “my glasses.”

Michigan coach John Beilein praised Loyola’s defense. The Ramblers’ switching style befuddled the Wolverines, but it also led to a weakness that Wagner exploited. When Loyola freshman center Cameron Krutwig switched to guarding a smaller player, Wagner crashed the boards for offensive put-backs against smaller players. Moritz had six of Michigan’s 11 offensive rebounds.

So the big, bad Wolverines fulfilled the role of villain by ending The Story of this NCAA Tournament.

“We never looked at the team as a Cinderella team,” Matthews said. “It’s like 300-something Division I teams, and they’re one of the last four standing. That’s no Cinderella story.”

There was a crush about 60 media members who waited 20 minutes before crowding into the too-small Loyola locker room (the Alamodome’s back-stage areas badly needed expanding). Graduate transfer senior Carson Shanks had his head in his hands, crying.

Senior forward Nick Dinardi, who after the Ramblers’ first-round buzzer-beating victory was joking with a trainer to check his vital signs, told a reporter he was “sad to see it come to an end.”

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of anger because of all the mistakes we made,” said Loyola’s Clayton Custer, who scored 15 points on nine shots. “We haven’t been a team that gives up 10-point leads but when we have we’ve figured out a way to get control back.”

Eight minutes into the game, Porter Moser called a timeout with his team trailing 12-4. His message was familiar.

“He told us to hit the reset button,” said Krutwig, who had a team-highs in points (17) and turnovers (six). “In those situations, we come out and say the score is 0-0 and just try to start over.”

From that point on, Loyola controlled the first 20 minutes. Their stifling and fundamentally sound defense kept Michigan from running its elegant offense. The Wolverines instead looked as if they were in the first practice of the season. No movement and the Ramblers constantly switching took away many of Michigan’s usual options.

But Loyola missed 14 shots in the first half and at least half of those were drives that failed to fall. “We didn’t have many breaks or bounces go our way,” said second-leading scorer Donte Ingram, who scored just two points on four shots.

That failure to build a bigger lead would prove fatal. Perhaps Michigan would have rallied from a bigger deficit but as the games get bigger, the margin for error shrinks. Loyola couldn’t afford to give up decisive margins in points off turnovers (22-7) and second-chance points (19-6).

This is the 55th anniversary of Loyola’s national championship in “The Game of Change.”

For a “mid-major” from the Missouri Valley Conference, it was a season of change.

“This season right here will be remembered forever, engraved in history,” said Loyola’s Marques Townes, who battled leg cramps for most of the game. “We proved a lot of people wrong. Today it didn’t go our way. We should keep our heads up and be proud. We changed the direction of the program.”

Loyola is the fifth double-digit seed to reach the Final Four and the fifth to leave after one game. The Ramblers’ playing style was pure and simple on both ends of the court. It just wasn’t enough to overcome missed shots and mistakes plus Michigan’s resolve.

“If you have guys who play hard, play defense, rebound and our tough, play hard with heart,” Custer said. You can go as far as anybody else.”

Just not as far as the championship game.