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And Then There Were Two: Michigan plays Villanova for the NCAA Championship

Michigan’s NCAA tournament run extends to the title game.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan coach John Beilein spent the entire week telling the country how good Loyola-Chicago is. As if to show their appreciation, the Ramblers spent the first 30 minutes of the national semi-final game proving him right. After falling behind early, the Ramblers looked like the better team for much of the game. Offensively, they were doing what they do, moving the ball and finding the open man. Defensively, Loyola was keeping Michigan from doing what it wanted to do, not allowing the Wolverines to get into their offensive sets. As a result, Michigan was largely limited to perimeter jumpers … few of which fell. The Wolverines shot just two of 13 from beyond the arc, a chilly 15% clip. Compounding matters for Michigan, the Wolverines struggled from the free throw line (not unusual) and turned the ball over eight times in the first half (very unusual). Charles Matthews gave the Wolverines an early lift with five quick points, but other than that, if it weren’t for Mo Wagner’s put-backs, the Wolverines would have barely crested double-figures by halftime. Wagner corralled 11 first half rebounds, including five on the offensive end, converting four of those into eight second-chance points, keeping the Wolverines in the game.

Beilein has praised his team’s poise throughout the tournament, and that poise was tested Saturday. Loyola was not only playing well, but seemed impervious to the pressure, seemed accustomed to the big stage, seemed to be growing more confident as the game progressed. To Beilein’s point, however, despite its poor play, Michigan didn’t get flustered in a frustrating first half. But while Michigan maintained its poise, it couldn’t cut into Loyola’s lead. Michigan went into the locker room trailing by seven, and when Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig connected on a three-point play to open the second half, the Ramblers’ lead was up to ten. Loyola’s lead was still ten with 14:08 to play and eight with 11:25 to play. It was getting late early for Michigan.

But then a funny thing happened, a Michigan team that couldn’t hit a shot, a team that tallied a paltry 22 points in the first 20 minutes of play, went on a 17-2 run, flipping the score from an eight-point deficit to a seven-point advantage, wresting control of the game in the process.

Beilein said after the game that all season long the Wolverines have taken what the defense has given them. He spoke of halftime adjustments and how, “if they (the Ramblers) were going to take the three-point shot away, then we were going to drive the ball into the gaps.” Enter Jordan Poole, he of the 30-foot, season-saving buzzer-beater earlier in the tournament. It didn’t take long for Poole to make an impact. A pair of lay-ups and a pair of free throws by Poole keyed a second-half revival that ultimately included clutch threes from Wagner and Robinson, helping turn the tide. Suddenly, Michigan’s shots were falling. And when Michigan’s defense forced five consecutive Loyola turnovers, a Michigan team that seemed to be on the brink of defeat moments earlier was on suddenly and convincingly on the verge of advancing to the title game.

It was no coincidence that Poole was in the game. Beilein noted that some players were just not themselves that night, and when considering line-up changes, he thought to himself, “I know one guy who would want to take those shots and that was Jordan Poole.”

Poole provided the spark, but he didn’t bring the Wolverines back alone. Michigan received another fine performance from Matthews, who scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds, and a monster game from Wagner. Wagner kept the Wolverines in the game in the first half with his put-backs and helped put the game out of reach in the second half, when he added 13 points. Wagner finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, joining Akeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players to record 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semi-final game.

The Michigan 17-2 run that turned the game in Michigan’s favor was part of a larger 32-12 Michigan run to finish to the game end, sending the Wolverines to the NCAA championship game for the second time in six years.

Michigan’s reward? A match-up against a Villanova team that looked about as good as a team could looks in its dismantling of Big 12 champ Kansas in the other semi-final game. Like Michigan, Villanova puts five shooters on the floor, but unlike Michigan on this night, ‘Nova couldn’t miss. How hot was Villanova? After the game, Wildcat coach Jay Wright said, “I feel bad for Kansas. They’re a great team. We just made every shot. And that happens sometimes.” Well, not exactly every shot, but when a team connects on 18 of 40 three-point attempts, it sure seems that way. Villanova raced to a 22-4 lead and never looked back, hanging 95 points on Kansas and looking every bit the number one seed it is.

Michigan will have to shoot appreciably better if it hopes to contend with Villanova. Another first half shooting under 30% from the floor will difficult to overcome. But the Wolverines will need to do more than just shoot better, they’ll also have to contain a Villanova team that’s proven to be difficult to contain. Villanova presents a challenge, because like Michigan, its big men can step outside and hit the three-point shot. And the Wildcats live off the three-pointer, attempting more three-pointers than two-pointers during the tournament, and connecting on more than 40% of their attempts.

Fortunately for Michigan, defending the three-pointer is one of the Wolverines’ strengths. Look no further than the Loyola game. The Ramblers were averaging seven made threes a game during their tournament run, yet Michigan held them to one. Beilein said that Michigan made a concerted effort to take away the three against Loyola and will undoubtedly do the same tonight against Villanova.

But it’s one thing to try to stop a team from hitting its shots and another thing to actually do so. And Michigan’s success at defending the three, even more than its ability to score on its own end, will likely determine the game … and the 2018 national champion.