After getting run out of the building in a blowout loss to Michigan 10 days ago, the Illini knew what they had to do in the rematch Friday. And they did it. They played their game, and they did it well. But the result was still the same.
Illinois wasn’t routed by 30 like they were in Champaign, but the orange and blue suffered another defeat at the hands of the regular-season conference champs, this one a 64-63 defeat in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The script was near perfect for an Illini stunner. The Wolverines didn’t shoot especially well, the Illini won the rebounding battle and the score wasn’t too high, just like the Illini like it. But in the waning seconds, Michigan converted a clutch basket to go up by one. Illinois couldn’t do the same.
After battling back from a 13-point second-half deficit, Illinois grabbed its first lead since 3-2 at 59-58 with fewer than five minutes remaining. And though some basket trading went on from there, the Illini wouldn’t trail again until the final made basket of the game: a Jordan Morgan layup with 11 seconds left that put the Wolverines on top for good.
Thursday’s hero, Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams, was given the last shot, and he had a clear path to the basket, though his floater fell short and the Illini were once again losers to the maize and blue.
It was a near picture-perfect game for the Illini, who locked down Michigan with a tremendous zone defense that spurred the second-half comeback. Ten days ago, the Wolverines buried the Illini with an endless parade of 3-pointers — they made 16 in that game. Friday, the shots weren’t falling as frequently. Michigan shot 44.7 percent from the field, a lower percentage than Illinois’ 45.3 percent. The Wolverines splashed home 33.3 percent of their 3-point attempts, nowhere close to the 69.6 percent 3-point shooting that destroyed the Illini on March 4.
The 64 points were the fourth fewest the Wolverines have scored since the start of Big Ten play.
Illinois also got offensive contributions from nearly everyone that stepped on the court. Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Kendrick Nunn were all in double figures for the second straight day, with Joseph Bertrand scoring nine points off the bench and Malcolm Hill and Nnanna Egwu combining for 15 points.
Unfortunately, however, a loss is a loss. The Illini’s longshot NCAA tournament hopes are now kaput, and John Groce will merely have to use this late-season rally as a building block for next season.
The Wolverines move on to play the winner of Nebraska and Ohio State tomorrow in the semifinals.