Tommy Amaker scrapped his reversal-of-roles experiment from the previous two contests and re-instated his regular quintet of Dion Harris, Lester Abram, Ronald Coleman, Brent Petway, and Courtney Sims for Wednesday night’s Big Ten opener against Illinois. The veteran unit actually came out of the blocks aggressively on offense, but they had little to show for it, as five early turnovers helped Bruce Weber’s bunch grab an 8-2 lead five minutes into the contest. The home team managed to bounce back, though, thanks to some spirited play from the upperclassmen. Courtney Sims got the ball rolling with a lay up, and Abram helped it along with five points to key a 13-6 run to take a 15-14 lead with 8:15 left in the half.
For the first time all season Abram played outstanding basketball, complete with drives to the basket and tough defense to help his team take control of the first half. The senior captain fueled a 7-2 run minutes later with five more points to help the Wolverines push the lead to six. That outburst either lit a fire under fellow senior Dion Harris, or it took a little pressure off of him. Whatever the case, the former Detroit Redford standout got into the act at the end of the half, scoring five points down the stretch to send the Maize & Blue into locker room up 29-25.
Amaker’s decision to go back to his veteran starting line-up was surprising to some in lieu of the recent performances, but the Wolverines sixth year headman sat down with his seniors and made it clear that the team’s fortunes lived and died with them. “I have great faith in them and I just feel like these kids have worked hard in this program,” Amaker said. “I believe in them, and always have, and for good reason based on how they performed tonight here at home. They held serve here in the opening game. Our seniors played big-time basketball. I was so proud of our seniors, Dion (Harris) and Lester (Abram), leading us offensively, Courtney (Sims) on the backboard, Brent (Petway) doing a great job offensively on (Warren) Carter at times. There were a lot of good things there for our kids… things that we need to continue to do this season."
Amaker’s club carried that positive momentum over to the second half by stopping Illinois on their opening possession and then coming down and scoring on a Harris triple. The Illni showed some resolve of their own, however, fighting back with 11-2 run take a 36-34 lead with 16:31 left on the clock. The two teams jostled for the lead over the next few minutes, but the seniors again rose to the challenge and helped the Wolverines seize control of the game.
Abram converted a lay-up to ignite an impressive 13-0 run to give Michigan a 53-41 lead at the 10:32 mark. This time it was Harris that strapped the team on his back, scoring eight of the points (six of which came on three pointers). Freshman Reed Baker contributed the other points with a triple of his own.
The Illini chopped the lead in half five minutes later, but Abram stepped up with a huge three-pointer to stem the tide. The Wolverines put the finishing touches on the game by showing deft precision at the charity stripe. They went 8/8 from the line down the stretch to preserve the 71-61 victory.
Abram and Harris led the Wolverines with 25 and 22 points respectively. Their performances were a vivid reminder to Amaker of how good his team can be when his two guards are on their games.
"It's totally a different ball club when we have those two kids playing in sync, playing in rhythm, and having fun out there,” he said. “It's not going to be where they're going to score 20 and 25 points, 22 and 25 every night, but you saw how aggressive they were making plays, attacking the basket and getting to the foul line. Lester on the backboard, it was nice to see. Those are the kind of efforts from those two particular kids."
The Wolverines will look to move their conference record to 2-0 when they travel
to Evanston, Illinois Saturday to take on the Northwestern Wildcats. Tip-off
is scheduled for 1:32 PM CST.