The recent fortunes of the Michigan basketball team have been painfully familiar for those that follow the Maize and Blue. For the second consecutive year, injuries have sapped Tommy Amaker's playing rotation of its depth. The most recent addition to the list of wounded was senior power forward Chris Hunter, who is now out for three to six weeks after partially tearing his MCL versus Michigan State. Even though the depletion in manpower has played a significant role in the Wolverines' 1-4 record over the previous five contests, Amaker has refused to let his team feel sorry for itself. With his squad's tournament hopes resting on how they finish the season, a win over Bruce Weber's 8th ranked Illini would be just what the doctor ordered. For Michigan to end Illinois' 11-game winning streak in the series, it would take great defense, senior leadership, and most of all, guts. Tuesday night, Daniel Horton stepped to the fore to exhibit all of those traits in what was one of the most memorable showings of his entire Michigan career.
For the first ten-and-a-half minutes of the game Horton was the Wolverines' entire offense. The veteran floor leader had a hand in all 13 Michigan points, scoring eleven on his own and assisting Brent Petway on a dunk for the other deuce to keep Michigan within four, (17-13), with 9:36 left. Then the rest of the Wolverines started to get into the act, Jerret Smith leading the charge.
Both Smith and Dion Harris were playing in only their second games since being out for extended periods of time. Their presence clearly had a positive effect on Horton and the team as a whole. Smith was particularly effective when he entered the contest, picking the pocket of an Illini ball-handler and driving to the other end for a difficult lay-in. That bucket ignited a 10-2 run that was capped off by a Horton triple that give Michigan its first lead of the game, (23-21), with just under seven minutes left in the half.
Illinois responded to Michigan's surge with an 8-0 spurt of their own to regain a six-point lead, but Smith was there to steady the ship for the Wolverines. The young floor general scored five of the home team's final seven points, including a three pointer, to help his squad head into the break trailing by only four, 34-30.
The Illini quickly increased their advantage coming out of the break thanks to the low post duo of James Augustine and Shaun Pruitt. The two big men outscored Michigan 6-3 in the opening moments up the half to go up 40-33. But as was the case in the first half, Horton stepped up to stem the tide.
After coming up with a big steal, Horton found Dion Harris trailing in transition for a big three-point bucket that sparked a long range barrage. The next time down the floor Horton drained his second trifecta of the half and fourth of the game to cut the lead to one. Ronald Coleman then joined the three-point party with yet another bomb to complete a 9-0 run that put the Wolverines back on top 42-40 at the 16:43 mark.
Dee Brown began to assert himself for the Illini at that point, but Horton was always ready with a response. After Brown nailed a triple to put the visitors back up 43-42, Horton came right back with five straight points, including his fifth three-pointer, to put Michigan up four. Minutes later Brown connected from long distance again to chop the lead to one, but Horton answered with a jumper to make the score 51-48 with 12:11 to go.
Despite Horton's frequent retorts, Bruce Weber's club just kept on coming. The Wolverines were still clinging to a one-point lead with 4:06 left in the game when Jerret Smith came up with one of the biggest plays of the contest. With the shot clock winding down, the freshman point-man drove into the lane and drew the defense, before elevating for a jump-pass to a wide-open Courtney Sims for a dunk. Sims was fouled in the act of shooting and converted the free throw to put the home team up 62-58 with 3:35 left to play. From there the Wolverines never looked back. Horton scored the Michigan's final eight points, the last six of which came from the charity stripe, to ice the 72-64 upset victory.
Horton, who scored a career best 39 points on the evening, drew praise from both coaches for his outstanding performance. "He willed us to this victory," Amaker said regarding his senior guard. "He willed the balls in the basket. He is an amazing player with that and the incredible confidence that he has in himself and in all of these kind of tight, big-game situations."
"I thought Chester (Frazier) might have bothered (Horton) the most, but when Chester is in there, we probably don't play as well offensively," said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "Chester at least battled him. I don't think our other guys battled him. Horton just got in one of those grooves and got going. Everything he threw up it looked like it was going in and you were surprised when he missed. He mixed in the threes with getting to the basket. The start of the second half was the key to the game. Our awareness and communication was poor and we let them get three or four wide open threes. When that happens, you give a team a chance to make a run and we could never recover. They rose up and we didn't do the things we needed to."
Next up for the Wolverines is a road battle on Saturday with the 12th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 PM.