Michigan 64, Illinois 63: Just A Bit Short

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Nik Stauskas and the Wolverines brought a devastating end to Illini dreams of a tournament bid.

This one really hurts. With this loss to the Wolverines, there is virtually zero chance of the Illini making the tournament. Much more painful than the final score, however, was the full story of the game.

After a back-and-forth first 18 minutes, Michigan went on a short 5-0 run going into halftime. They would extend their lead to double digits early in the second half, and hope seemed largely absent among Illini fans.

The Illini went to a 2-3 zone a few times in the first half and early in the second, and Michigan easily handled it. It looked like Illinois could make a run, then Rayvonte Rice flubbed a fast-break dunk (seriously) because he tried too hard to make a statement. Michigan stepped up their defensive effort and the Illini struggled to get anything going. Things looked bleak.

Then, our fearless leader Jack Cassidy handed me the recap due to technological complications. This would undoubtedly be the turning point in the game. The comeback was on.

The Illini would actually go on a 10-0 run before they were briefly halted by a Glenn Robinson III three. The 2-3 zone almost became a 4-1 zone, with Nnanna Egwu manning the middle and four perimeter defenders dogging the Wolverines everywhere they went. I have to give credit to Coach Groce here-- I was ripping him for using the zone in the first half, to little effect, but he made some adjustments and the Illini zone shut down Michigan.

Caris Levert and Nik Stauskas helplessly lobbed up bricks as the Illini closed the gap. Michigan's lane defense was simply a joke the entire game, and Ray Rice and Tracy Abrams continuously pounded away at their big men. Michigan was four-for-seventeen from the three point line in the final twenty minutes. After the 16:14 mark of the second half, Michigan would make just four field goals. FOUR FIELD GOALS. IN ALMOST AN ENTIRE HALF. ILLINOIS DID NOT WIN. WHAT. WHY.

With around two minutes left in the game, Michigan had a 40 second possession. They missed three consecutive threes, and the Illini came away with a rebound. It was at this point, with 1:38 let, that I really began to believe. I'm among the more pessimistic/realistic fans I know, but one bucket here would make it a two possession game with little time remaining.

Four Factors/PPP - Team eFG% TO% OREB% FTA/FGA PPP
Illinois 50.0 15.8 33.3 22.6 1.10
Michigan 55.3 14.5 20.7 31.9 1.13

Illinois failed to score, Nik Stauskas hit one of two free throws, and the Illini got the ball back up by one with 55 seconds remaining. An obvious two-for-one scenario, and Groce completely wasted the opportunity. Tracy Abrams dribbled the ball at halfcourt for 27 seconds, the Illini ran a simple pick and roll 30 feet from the basket, and Abrams tossed up a contested three point shot that would find only backboard.

With twenty seconds remaining in the game, Michigan now had the opportunity to take the final shot. The Illini should've gone two-for-one and, failing that, they should have initiated the offense the instant the clock rolled past 35 seconds. This would cost them, as Stauskas fed Jordan Morgan for the go-ahead layup with eight seconds to play in the game. Of note, Groce had the Illini in man-to-man on the final possession, despite the zone being the only thing that allowed them to stay in the game.

The Illini would come back down to the other end immediately, and Groce called a timeout with 3.9 seconds remaining. He should've called it earlier, but those two seconds wouldn't make a huge difference. Ultimately, Tracy Abrams caught the inbounds pass, drove right past Caris Levert, found his way into the lane, attempted a wide open floater and...

...bricked it off the front of the rim.

Thus is the life of an Illini fan, it would seem. Keep in mind, the future of the basketball team looks bright, and it's always fantastic for a young team to end the season strong. We can still go win the NIT. We can make a bowl game in football next year. We will make the tournament again next year.

The future is promising, but the present still depresses. One win away from the bubble, one more win over Nebraska/Ohio State away from the tournament. Beyond that, there were just so many correctable mistakes. There are no moral victories here for me, only sadness. The season will go on, but what could've been a magical run ended prematurely.

Just a bit short.

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