Porter Moser had repeatedly told his players that there was no finish line for their season, the coach refusing to limit the possibilities of an upstart team.
Loyola Chicago finally reached the end of its NCAA tournament run Saturday. It wasn’t the one the Ramblers wanted.
A magical three-week ride ended with Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt being wheeled away from her courtside seat inside the Alamodome with 99 seconds left in 11th-seeded Loyola’s 69-57 loss to third-seeded Michigan in a national semifinal.
When it was over, Ramblers guard Ben Richardson pulled the top of his jersey over his face to hide his tears as he walked off the court. Moser stopped him to offer a consoling hug.
“The more you invest in something, the harder it is to give up,” Moser said of his message to his players afterward. “And they didn’t want to end it.”
The mood was far more upbeat for the Wolverines. Forward Moritz Wagner got a high-five from TBS commentator Grant Hill late in the game after leaping over a pack of courtside broadcasters while pursuing a loose ball. He accidentally broke commentator Bill Raftery’s glasses in the process.
Wagner also shattered the Ramblers’ hopes after finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds, carrying the Wolverines (33-7) through long stretches in which he was their only productive player. He joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players to notch at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal.
“Relax,” Wagner said with a smile after a reporter informed him of the exclusive company he now inhabited. “If you put it like that, it’s probably cool.”
Wagner later plunked his 6-foot-11 frame down on a black leather couch and looked as if he might go straight to sleep. He said he had been so worn out that he was lying down in the locker room at halftime.
Wagner eventually got some help as Michigan ended the game on a 27-10 run that allowed enough breathing room to insert its reserves in the final seconds. Guard Charles Matthews added 17 points for Michigan, which will play Villanova in the championship game Monday.
Loyola (32-6) sputtered over the final nine minutes after holding leads as large as 10 points early in the second half. The Ramblers committed 11 turnovers and made only one of seven three-pointers in the second half.
“They were shrinking the gap of opportunity so fast,” Moser said. “I remember one back-cut, I thought it was wide open and all of a sudden they closed to the body with their length and got a deflection.”
Cameron Krutwig scored 17 points and Clayton Custer had 15 for Loyola, which made it to the Final Four after being picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference. But the Ramblers could not conjure any more magic after winning three NCAA tournament games thanks to making shots in the final 10 seconds.
Sister Jean, Loyola’s 98-year-old team chaplain, did her best to invoke another improbable outcome. She spoke with UCLA legend Bill Walton before the game and delivered her usual pregame prayer, saying “Good luck, God bless and go Ramblers!”
Loyola was still ahead by eight points after Custer made two free throws with 11:25 left. But Michigan’s Jordan Poole made a driving layup and Duncan Robinson added a three-pointer to shave the margin to three.
Wagner pulled his team into a 47-47 tie when he made a three-pointer with less than seven minutes to play, prompting Michigan coach John Beilein to clap in encouragement.
The Wolverines went on to complete a 12-0 run on a Wagner put-back in which he was fouled. Wagner flexed his arms while smiling after the play, then stepped to the free-throw line and sank the shot to give his team a 54-47 advantage.
“They stepped up,” Moser said of the Wolverines. “That’s what great teams do. They stepped up and made those shots and we were a little vulnerable on that run. There was just a little less oomph on our rotations.”
The Ramblers were also completely out of sync on offense. Five consecutive possessions ended in turnovers.
The biggest stir inside the stadium before the final moments might have come in the first half when Sister Jean was shown on the Jumbotron. She offered a slight fist pump.
The final salutes belonged to Michigan. Poole shared the winning vibe when he stopped to exchange pleasantries with Sister Jean in a corridor, briefly clutching her hand, with the Wolverines headed to their first title game since 2013.
“I told her,” Poole said, “I was a big fan.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch