Illinois got off to a sluggish start in its game against Michigan Friday afternoon, but it went on a 17-4 run to enter halftime with a 34-23 lead. The Illini were up 12 at 51-39 when they suddenly stopped running offense and made unforced errors. It was typical of their season according to assistant coach Jay Price.
"Yeah it was. At the beginning of the game, we didn't play as well as I think we could. And then we really played well the last 15 minutes of the first half and the first 12 minutes of the second half. Every time we got up twelve, it seemed they would come down and shoot a three and knock it in."
Known as a three-point shooting team, the Wolverines hit 11 of 24 from the arc and were especially hot second half. The Illini went 5:31 without a point and 7:21 without a basket, allowing a 12 point UM run that included two threes by reserve Evan Smotrycz and three drives by point guard Darius Morris. Michigan scored 21 of the last 25 points in the game.
Price stated the obvious.
"They made a ton of threes, particularly the second half. Half their shots were threes, and they started making shots. (Zack) Novak in the last 5 games was 18% from three. He was 4 for 8 today. They made some big shots at the end, and we couldn't get anything to fall."
Turnovers were a big part of the Illini drought, including Jereme Richmond making two poor passes in a row at a critical time when patience and teamwork were essential to slow UM momentum.
"We had way too many turnovers," Price stated. "We had a bunch of them right in a row when there was nothing going on. We did some things we didn't need to have happen. You can't turn the ball over in big games and win."
In a microcosm of the season, the Illini proved once again they cannot stand prosperity. It seems they relax with a lead and don't make sharp cuts or set solid screens, as if the game has already been won. Players stand around waiting for someone else to do something. When the opponent rallies, the Illini begin playing not to lose instead of to win.
As the lead dwindles, bodies tighten up. In this game, several Illini shots in the critical part of the game hit the front of the rim or bounded wildly off the backboard. With the misses came doubt, and the loss of confidence on the offensive end led to a lack of focus on defense. It is such a typical pattern, most Illini fans can describe it in their sleep.
For the Illini, Brandon Paul had one of his best all-around efforts of the season. He filled the stat sheet and played good defense on Morris. He may have tired late as fellow sophomore D.J. Richardson rode the pine with a continuation of his self-doubting play. Price acknowledged Paul afterward.
"He played really well in the first half. In the second half, he made a big three. He had 10 points, five steals, four assists and six rebounds. It's a pretty good day. But Morris makes a big shot over him. That's just the way the game went."
Demetri McCamey played extremely well in the first half, pushing the ball and running the offense. But he fell off considerably second half, in part due to spending all 40 minutes on the floor. When he is tired, he stands around on both offense and defense. This is usually when the team needs him most. It is a vicious cycle that is hard to overcome without more depth at the guard spots.
McCamey had 10 points and five assists on the day as he passed Eddie Johnson on the Illinois career scoring chart. Mike Tisdale had a good game with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocked shots. But only 2 of his points came in the second half despite a major height advantage.
Bill Cole hit three threes before fouling out. Mike Davis added 8 points and 7 rebounds but struggled most of the day. Richmond added six points but had 3 turnovers. The Illini shot 42% on the game including 34.6% from the arc.
Most bracketologists believe the Illini are in the NCAA Tournament field despite this loss, but their seeding will do them no favors. Price is unwilling to assume anything until it is announced on Selection Sunday. But he believes the overall body of work should be rewarded.
"I think we've played well. I think we've played a really hard schedule. We've beaten a lot of teams that are probably a 'lock' in the NCAA Tournament. We've done what we can do. We think our body of work is good enough to be in, but nobody knows except the people at the (NCAA Selection Committee)."