Michigan shot poorly and lost to Purdue at home last weekend. There was no doubt they'd be focused against the Illini. Add in their 13 game losing streak at the Assembly Hall, and the Wolverines were overdue for a hot-shooting night.
But have no doubt, Michigan was better than Illinois Thursday. Point guard Trey Burke, the likely Freshman of the Year in the Big 10, was on fire first half, and Tim Hardaway, Jr., who broke out of an extended slump against the Illini in their first encounter, was practically perfect according to Illini coach Bruce Weber.
"Credit Michigan. Burke the first half was special, and then Hardaway second half. We switched Brandon (Paul) onto Burke second half, and he did a pretty good job on him. Then it was Hardaway's turn. We just didn't seem to have any answers against him. Today he was special, and that was the difference in the game."
Weber was extremely disappointed the Illini couldn't put back-to-back defensive efforts together.
"Obviously disappointing for us after a pretty good effort Sunday against Iowa where we guarded and played hard. I didn't think we played as hard as we needed to, especially on the defensive end.
"I wouldn't say anyone played great for us. You're hoping last home game, maybe a chance to turn the season, but we just didn't get anything going."
The contrast in shooting ability between the two teams was marked. The Illini have struggled from the field all year, and UM added insult to injury.
"We just don't shoot it that well, and we let our missed shots bother us. The difference is, they go 9-19 from three, and we go 4-14. That's 15 points, that's the game. They didn't miss free throws, so that didn't help either. They definitely came focused and played well."
The Illini fell behind 7-2 early, but a Paul trey tied the score 14-14. Little did anyone know that would be the closest the Illini would ever get. Burke went on a personal 8-0 run to put doubt in Illini minds. The Wolverines were over 60% from the field most of the first half and enjoyed 56% marksmanship from the arc.
The Illini fought back from an 8 point halftime deficit and had a chance to tie the game at 44, but Paul hit only one of two free throws to leave them one point shy. They had multiple chances to tie or take the lead when it was 46-44 UM, but they could never get over the hump. Michigan then went on a 9-0 run, aided significantly by forced shots and turnovers, to put the game out of reach.
The key stretch was when UM held that 46-44 lead. Paul missed an ill-advised jumper, D.J. Richardson missed a three, Joe Bertrand missed a jumper and Paul threw the ball away before Hardaway hit a three to end the Illini's last hopes. As good as Paul is, he also experiences brief periods where everything goes wrong. It appears to occur every game despite his best efforts. Unfortunately, it came at the most crucial point in the game.
Leonard was the Illinois scoring leader with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Paul added 15 and 6 boards before fouling out, and Tracy Abrams battled for 12 hard-earned points. But the Illini were out rebounded by 5 and outshot from the field, 46.7% to 38.9%. For Michigan, Hardaway ended with 25 points on 6-7 from the field and 9-10 free throws. He also grabbed 11 boards. Burke ended with 21 points and 5 assists.
Leonard was buoyed by the return of his brother from Afghanistan. He wasn't expected, leaving Leonard overjoyed with the surprise.
"I had no clue that he was coming. It brought tears to my eyes to finally see him after his second deployment. He's a very important person in my life. He put his life on the line every single day for the second time for nine straight months. I have the utmost respect for him and couldn't be more proud to call him my brother."
Despite the loss, Leonard still believes the Illini can make the NCAA tourney field.
"Absolutely. Obviously, this was a tough one. If we had grabbed this one, I think it would have given us a lot better chance. As far as the Big 10 goes, we're known as a team that can beat Wisconsin on the road. That will be a big game. And we have the Big 10 tournament. We're capable of doing it."
Weber is keeping his hopes up also, working to get his guys to make one monumental effort to close out the season.
"Whatever win we get now is gonna be a pretty good win. I told the kids we've got to believe in each other, we've got to stick together. I used the Cardinals as an example. A lot of things can happen, but you have to go earn it. We've got to win some games to give yourself a chance."
This was the final home game for seniors Sam Maniscalco and Jean Selus. Both played but didn't score. Illini Nation may also have said goodbye to Leonard, who may be unable to decline NBA overtures. Given the current climate, it may also have been the final home game for Illini head coach Bruce Weber.