The issue for Illinois heading into this game against the Michigan Wolverines was its slow starts to games.
But in Saturday afternoon’s contest, it was the Illini’s terrible second half that would cause them to fall 79-69 to the Wolverines.
Sophomore forward Kipper Nichols tied a career-high and led all scorers in points with 17 off the bench, but it was not enough. Nichols also collected seven rebounds.
Freshman Greg Eboigbodin also had another solid performance off the bench with 10 points and six rebounds.
Those two were the only Illini members in double figures, while the Wolverines had six players, led by Moritz Wagner with 14 points and Duncan Robinson with 13.
Freshman Trent Frazier got the first start of his young career, but only contributed eight points and one assist in the game while sophomore Te’Jon Lucas put in eight points and six assists off the bench.
The Illini finally did not get off to a slow start in conference play Saturday against the Wolverines but did not necessarily get off to a fantastic start either.
It wasn’t until the mid-stages of the first half that Illinois got a solid lead thanks to a 9-2 run, which was led by Nichols who scored six straights points to have the 17-9 advantage.
Michigan responded by taking a 25-23 lead after it went on a 12-2 run. The Illini struggled in all aspects during this stretch, speeding themselves up offensively, which led to bad decisions, then getting lost defensively in both transition and the half court.
Illinois eventually got its bearings together and finished the half strongly with a 34-31 lead heading into the break. After struggling immensely in the month of December, Nichols came out to lead the Illini in scoring with nine points off the bench.
Smith who had also been relatively quiet this last month, had eight points, which included going two-for-two from beyond-the-arc.
It was a balanced scoring attack in general as seven of the 10 players that saw the court in the first half managed to get points on the board.
The ball was getting shot relatively well from the Illini at 48.3 percent, while the Wolverines were shooting 38.5 percent from the field.
However, Michigan did have the advantage at the charity stripe, shooting 8-of-10 from the line compared to the Illini who were 3-of-4.
Then the second half happened...
The Wolverines came out strong, going on a 10-2 run to take a 41-36 lead. The Illini opened the half with three turnovers, two by Smith which landed him a spot on the bench.
The lead grew to its biggest of the game for the Wolverines after they caught fire from behind the three-point line. Four second-half long balls helped them extend their lead to 11 with under 10 minutes remaining in the game.
After a Charles Matthews dunk in transition, Michigan found itself up 68-55 with only 5:38 to go and Illinois seemed unable to put together anything consistent offensively.
Nichols tied his career-high in points with 17 after two free throws at the 2:30 mark, but facing a 73-61 deficit looked impossible to overcome.
The Illini resorted to fouling in hopes that the Wolverines would falter at the free throw line, but they did not and the Illini are now 0-4 in conference play.
Illinois will have another shot to break this conference losing streak on Jan. 11 when they head back to Champaign to host the Iowa Hawkeyes.