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Michigan's Sweet 16 ride due as much to talent as destiny

INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan's ride to the Sweet 16 has been defined by a plane accident last week while taking off for the Big Ten tournament.

The No. 7-seeded Wolverines continued as an unlikely NCAA tournament darling after upsetting second-seeded Louisville 73-69 Sunday.

But here's the reality. Despite being a relatively low seed and despite the galvanizing, life-changing experience of surviving their plane skidding off the runway after the pilot aborted takeoff, the Wolverines are winning because they're a dangerous team.

They outsprinted Oklahoma State in the first round, hitting 16 3-pointers in a 92-91 victory Friday. Two days later, in the second round against the Cardinals, they showed another side, banging inside for 40 points in the paint.

Sophomore Moritz Wagner scored a career-high 26 points, and D.J. Wilson added 17 points, proving themselves a lethal big-man combo.

"People think we're a 3-point shooting machine," coach John Beilein said. "You can't do that anymore unless you can drive the ball or (give it to) D.J. and Moe. We've worked hard to play one-on-one in the post. People are sticking with our shooters. It's a big game-changer, as well as Derrick Walton (Jr.) and Muhammad (Ali Abdur-Rahkman) not settling for jump shots. They can take the ball to the basket and finish. We've been working on it endlessly. We've been working on it for four years."

Michigan's versatility was pivotal. Walton was limited to 3-of-13 shooting for 10 points, and Abdur-Rahkman shot just four times for two field goals. The Wolverines missed 11 of 17 3-point tries.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino — in a slight exaggeration — called the Wolverines the Golden State Warriors before the teams met.

The Wolverines (26-11) have won seven straight games — six since their plane accident — to earn the right to play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.

"They're a much improved defensive team from the time I watched them at Minnesota (on Feb. 19) to even now," Pitino said. "People like to say it's because of the trauma they went through with the plane. I don't think that had anything to do with it. I really do think adversity does make you stronger, certainly, like that. I think they just keep evolving into a better basketball team in all phases of the game. They can beat you so many different ways."

Near the end of the game, Wagner flexed his arms, stuck out his tongue and screamed in the direction of Wolverines fans in the stands. Teammate and roommate Wilson slung his arm around his friend's neck and laughed.

In the locker room the team engaged in a water gun fight with Beilein, as has become their tradition.

"It's beautiful to see each other being successful and very happy that the team, in general, could be successful today," Wagner said.

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