Inside The Winning Play

An in-depth look at how Illinois tried to defend Michigan's final possession.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Tracy Abrams missed the deciding shot at the buzzer in Friday's quarterfinal game against Michigan at the Big Ten Tournament.

The unsuccessful attempt will surely be talked about for years to come.

The winning play, however, happened a handful of seconds earlier on the other end of the court.

With Michigan trailing by one and with less than 20 seconds to find a way to win, leading scorer Nik Stauskas threaded a pass to Jordan Morgan, rolling to the basket like a bag of bag of cranked up Indy car engines. Morgan dropped in a highly contested lay-up, giving the Wolverines the eventual final margin of 64-63.

The play was Basketball 101, a brilliantly executed pick and roll with Michigan's leading scorer connecting with the team's oldest player and only senior.

In the huddle prior to the play, the Illini geared up for what was coming. Somehow, someway, they knew Stauskas, who scored a game-high 19 while missing 8 of his 10 treys, had to be involved.

"Obviously we knew they run a lot of plays but the main guy is Nik Stauskas," Illini forward Nnanna Egwu said. "We felt they were probably going to go to him at the end of the game."

With the Illini needing a win to keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive, the Illinois bench was surprisingly calm as they discussed what Michigan might do. According to senior Jon Ekey there wasn't an overload of information or a panicked throng of possibilities thrown out by the coaches at the players.

Basically Coach John Groce's message was something along the lines of, go do what you've been doing.

"These coaches do a really good job of not cramming our heads full of too much stuff," Ekey said. "They've been doing that all season, whether it's game plans or trying to keep it simple, just letting us go out there and play. We know how big that moment is."

Just 10 days before, Michigan had scored 84 points and hit 16 three-pointers in embarrassing Illinois on it's home floor. Now the Wolverines were in a situation where they'd missed 14 of 21 shots in the second half, in part because of an Illinois zone defense.

In the first meeting, the Illini didn't use a 2-3 look much according to Wolverines guard Caris LeVert. Friday though, a mix of man and zone stalled Michigan out, just like it did Indiana the previous day. The option had always been there, but Rayvonte Rice said Groce didn't trust it enough until late in the season.

"We did a better job of using it and knowing it and learning," Rice said.

The timeout was drawing to a close. What would Michigan do? How would Illinois defend it?

Groce called for man-to-man.

"I feel like in that moment you've got to go man, just because they'd seen the zone all game," Ekey said. "They've got too many good shooters that could get loose."

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht said the Wolverines were prepared to call timeout if they didn't like what Illinois showing. In the Maize and Blue huddle, Coach John Beilein prepared for both Illini defenses.

"I wasn't surprised they went man because they were trying to face guard Nik and keep the ball out of his hands," Albrecht said.

The Wolverines didn't call timeout. They felt good with the call. "We were just running something to get Nik the ball and then get him some action, and then he just read the floor," Beilein said. "If he shot it, fine. If he found somebody else, fine."

The horns were sounded and the talking was done. The Illini took the court, tasked with stopping one of the Big Ten's most potent offenses. Egwu felt the enormity of the moment.

"We've been working on (defense) during the season, the offseason," he said. "All that hard work comes down to one stop in the Big Ten Tournament."

On the other end, Stauskas told Morgan he was going to shoot it regardless what Illinois did to try to stop him. Morgan figured as much anyway, but his job was to roll after setting a good pick.

The action began and Albrecht handed off to Stauskas on the left wing. He dribbled right, with the intent to shoot. Illini freshman Malcolm Hill saw everything playing out in front of him as he guarded away from the ball. Morgan went to the top of the key and set the screen. This was the action for Stauskas to get his shot and the Illini knew he wanted to take it.

"That was a red sign when we saw Stauskas close to the screener," Hill said. "Throughout the whole game he was hitting that shot from the midrange. I think what clicked in our head was he was most likely going to shoot the ball."

But Stauskas didn't pull up to shoot. Abrams fought through the pick and Egwu was hedging over to cover as well.

With the shot not there, Stauskas hit Morgan rolling to the basket.

"If you have a big time player like Stauskas that's willing to pass the ball in a situation like that and get it to his big man, that speaks volumes for him," Ekey said.

The pass was something for enthusiasts to admire. But Morgan still had to finish. Illini freshman Kendrick Nunn and Rice rotated over and were in position to help. Morgan had too much momentum to be stopped though.

"I thought Ray had a pretty good contest on the lay-up," Hill said. "I think he got a piece of it, but it went in."

So while Abrams told his teammates he had missed the opportunity to win the game, everybody involved in that defensive stand let him know real quick that they had been beaten by a perfect play before his miss.

"That's kind of what we said afterwards," Ekey said, noting that Illinois didn't make glaring mistakes on the winning Wolverines shot.

They just got beat by two good players combining on a great play.

"I thought we did what we had to do," Egwu said. "He just made a great pass and Morgan made a great finish."

Back in the locker room afterwards, Egwu stood in the same room where the previous day he had expressed excitement about facing off against Michigan again.

Really? The Michigan team that was so dominant in the first meeting? Yep, Egwu said. He wanted the rematch with the Illini playing it's best defense. He said win or lose, he wanted to prove to the Big Ten's best team that Illinois was good enough to stop them.

"We did, we did," Egwu said. "I'd like to win now though. We showed them our defense and we just came up short."


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