LOS ANGELES — Moe Wagner climbed the ladder, snipped the final strand and whipped the net around his head while thousands of Michigan’s West Coast fans roared.
The Wolverines hadn’t caused much disturbance to those nets at Staples Center during the West Region final. They also knew it didn’t matter, because Florida State troubled the twine even less.
When shots aren’t falling, Michigan knows it can rely on defense, discipline and tenacity. And by doing all the hard things, the Wolverines muscled their way to the Final Four.
Charles Matthews scored 17 points and Michigan earned its first Final Four berth since 2013 with a 58-54 victory over the Seminoles on Saturday night.
“I’ve never seen a team work so hard and be so connected on both ends of the floor,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Even when things do not go right on the offensive end, they were exceptional on defense.”
Wagner added 12 points as the Wolverines (32-7) earned their 13th consecutive victory by persevering through a defense-dominated second half despite shooting 4-for-22 from 3-point range.
After taking a 10-point lead on Duncan Robinson’s 3-pointer with 2:26 to play, Michigan’s lead dwindled to three before P.J. Savoy missed a potential tying 3-pointer for Florida State with 58 seconds left. The Wolverines held off a late charge from the Seminoles (23-12), who had already knocked off three higher-seeded opponents on their school’s longest NCAA Tournament run since 1993.
“We take pride in our defense, so we believe in ourselves,” said Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman, who scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting. “We knew we had to get stops. We weren’t making free throws. That comes with the game sometimes. We just had to continue to get stops.”
With tenacious defense and just enough made free throws down the stretch, Michigan hung on and advanced to San Antonio, Texas, next weekend to face the underdog heroes of Loyola-Chicago (32-5), who stunned the sport by winning the South Region.
The third-seeded Wolverines are much less of a surprise, but the achievement is no less impressive for Beilein’s squad, which wore its “Do More, Say Less” shirts throughout the week.
Michigan let its fans do the talking: The Wolverines had a distinct home-court advantage from thousands of vocal fans packed into the lower bowl of the Lakers’ and Clippers’ home arena, and they seemed to need all of those cheers to survive an off shooting night.
“I felt like we were in Ann Arbor,” Beilein said.
Phil Cofer scored 16 points for the ninth-seeded Seminoles (23-13), who couldn’t match their late rally past top-seeded Xavier last week because they simply couldn’t score consistently, going 7 for 30 from the field in the second half.
“Even though we were getting good stops, we couldn’t get into our offensive flow because they were doing a good job defensively,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “When we did get into the lane, we didn’t finish our plays. The thing about Michigan’s team, they are not totally defined by one particular player. They’re a complete basketball team.”
Savoy trimmed the Wolverines’ lead to 55-52 on a 3-pointer with 1:17 to play. With Michigan fans holding their breath, Savoy then missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer and two more 3-pointers in the final minute, including a final shot under pressure with 12 seconds left.
“They call themselves the junkyard dogs,” Beilein said, referring to Florida State’s nickname for its defense. “Well, we’re pit bulls.”
Michigan’s Zavier Simpson and Robinson combined to hit three free throws in the final minute to keep Florida State at bay.
And with Michigan up by four, Florida State allowed the Wolverines to dribble out the clock without fouling again.
Florida State: The loss ended a remarkable March for Hamilton’s Seminoles, who hit their stride at the perfect time. Florida State went 9-9 in ACC play and lost in the first round of the conference tournament, but still made the NCAA field and made an impressive run.
Michigan: The Wolverines are carving their own names in their school’s rich basketball history with an impressive late-season roll. After winning the Big Ten tournament, Michigan survived a rough opening weekend in Wichita before earning back-to-back wins in Los Angeles. This victory might not contribute many big plays to the highlight videos of this March run, but it’s special: Michigan set its school’s single-season record for wins, surpassing the 1993 and 2013 squads.
Staples Center was largely packed with maize-and-blue fans of the Wolverines, who have a vast alumni base in California. Beilein predicted a major advantage for his team, and he was proven correct. The crowd included Rudy Tomjanovich, the Michigan alumnus and former Lakers coach, who watched in Wolverines gear near courtside.
CHARLES IN CHARGE
Matthews usually was a complementary scorer during the Big Ten season, but he has stepped into a starring role in the Tournament with three double-digit performances. He added a team-leading eight rebounds.
The first half wasn’t pretty, and Michigan took a 27-26 lead into the break despite failing to get a field goal in the final 5:45. Florida State managed only two points in a 10 ½-minute stretch spanning halftime, and Michigan took a 10-point lead before Cofer led the Seminoles back into it.
Florida State: The Seminoles’ impressive March should turn plenty of recruits’ heads as they continue to bury the myth that Florida State is a football school.
Michigan: Sister Jean awaits in San Antonio.