The No. 11-seeded Loyola University Chicago Ramblers — the Cinderella darlings of the 2018 Men’s NCAA Tournament — were in complete control of Saturday’s first national semifinal.
In fact, the Ramblers had the No. 3-seed Michigan Wolverines looking up, down 29-22 after the opening 20:00 of the 2018 Men’s Final Four. LUC lulled the Wolverines to sleep with both tenacious defense and savvy shot selection. Michigan was arctic cold from the land of plenty in the opening half, and their frustration was visible. With under 14:00 left in the contest, Loyola-Chicago was still in the driver’s seat with a 10-point advantage.
But after some in-game adjustments during timeouts from Head Coach John Beilein, the Wolverines started to respond. Junior forward Moritz “Moe” Wagner from Berlin, Germany led the late push, piling on points in the paint as well as from the land of plenty. The 6-foot-11 and 245-pound stud finished the contest with 24 points, 15 rebounds, and one assist for good measure. The Wolverines ended LUC’s fairytale run, 69-57. Now, they had the opportunity to watch who they’d play in Monday night’s finale. Would it be the Villanova Wildcats or the Kansas Jayhawks reaching the championship game?
The answer was easy from the onset. Head Coach Jay “Armani” Wright’s Villanova kids simply picked apart Kansas from the tip. Stellar defense and radar lock from the land of plenty. These Wildcats were knocking down triples like layups during their pregame warm-up. Bang, bang, bang equaled lights out for the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, Nova Nation emphatically punched their ticket to the finale under the bright lights of the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX with a nasty 95-79 drumming of their fellow No. 1-seed.
So, Monday night’s National Championship Game featured Wolverine Country versus Nova Nation. Villanova was seeking their second national title in three seasons, and a grand total of three for the program. On the other end of the floor, Michigan was looking for their second title in program history. Favored in Las Vegas by seven points, the Wildcats are the biggest favorites to play for the title since 2010.
From the tip, the Wolverines had that patented suffocating defense causing a little frustration for the Cats. UM’s defense was pushing Nova about two to four feet farther from beyond the arc than they’re used to. Instead of 13-of-26 from the land of plenty against the Jayhawks, the Wildcats started 1-for-8 from three-point range. But as time started ticking down off the opening half clock, the Wolverines quickly tired. Moe Wagner was breathing heavily with his hands on his hips after 5:00 of phenomenal play. His Michigan mates looked equally gassed.
(Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)
All of this happened at exactly the same time I noticed that Villanova seemed to be barely breaking a sweat. After heavy doses of the National Player of the Year, senior point guard Jalen Brunson doing some work close to the rim, the Wildcats received a plentiful boost from the Big East’s sixth man of the year, Donte DiVincenzo. Dropping triples with his sweet stroke and taking it to the tin off the bounce, Donte’s inferno was highly flammable. Mr. DiVincenzo tallied 18 of Villanova’s 37 first-half points, going 7-of-10 from the field and surging the Wildcats to a 37-28 halftime edge. Mr. DiVincenzo finished with 31-points — the most by a player in a title game since 1989. And he did it coming off the bench.
As the second half kickstarted, Wolverine players continued to look depleted. Nova had an extra step on Michigan during each possession. Things began to get a little chippy with just over 15:00 remaining for the title. Wagner’s drive to the basket with the Wolverines down 48-33 ended with a hand to Mr. Brunson’s face and an offensive foul call. A few words were exchanged before double-technical fouls were assessed.
Michigan never backed down, cutting Nova’s lead to 12-points with just under 10:00 remaining in this battle for the orange roundball championship. Secondarily, Brunson was on the bench with four fouls. This could’ve been the lift the Wolverines needed to make the Wildcats sweat it out for the title. Instead, freshman Collin Gillespie handled the orange with care, dished some dimes, and even contributed with a few points from the free throw line. Junior guard Mikal Bridges put the title on ice with several deep triples from both the right and left wings. Lock it, load it, nylon!