The Illini were able to keep their hopes for a Big Ten regular season title alive by gutting out a victory in Ann Arbor over the Wolverines. In another back and forth affair with little defense being played on either side, the Illini got just enough offense, despite troublesome free throw shooting, to overcome big days for Michigan guard DaVante’ Jones (25 points, 10 assists) and forward Caleb Houstan (21 points). They exercised the foul trouble demons from Thursday’s matchup against the Buckeyes and will look to take their newfound momentum into their final two games of the regular season to lock up a double bye in the Big Ten tournament.
For the Illini, Alfonso Plummer (26 points, including 6-of-9 from three) continued his hot shooting ways against the Wolverines, frequently hitting stepback after stepback to the dismay of Michigan defenders Eli Brooks, Kobe Bufkin and others. However, the Wolverines clamped down on the three-point opportunities in the second half, putting Plummer on the bench for a good portion of the second half.
Fortunately, the Illini imposed their will on the interior in the second half thanks to Kofi Cockburn (27 points, 7 rebounds) returning to form in this one and getting the better of his counterpart Hunter Dickinson (13 points on 4-of-13 shooting, 11 rebounds). Despite having a 15-point lead on the backs of strong performances from Cockburn and Plummer, the Illini still found themselves in a fight late with clutch shooting from Houstan and Jones pulling the Wolverines to within two with just over two minutes to go.
As has happened so many times in his career and specifically this season, the Illini put the ball in the hands of their savvy veteran guard Trent Frazier (17 points, 3 assists), who hit a huge three with just 45 seconds to go to put the Illini up 7 and effectively seal the game. Andre Curbelo (12 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds) also gave the Illini a nice 20 minutes off the bench and showed flashes of his connection with Cockburn with finely threaded passes to the big man and returning rhythm with creative finishes around the rim.
The response from the Illini in this game after coming up short against the Buckeyes is encouraging while still being without their full complement of players with Melendez and Bosmans-Verdonk once again unavailable. However, the Illini will need to continue to improve their free throw shooting and foul situation as the margins for error get smaller in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
All eyes will be on the big matchup between fellow Big Ten leaders Wisconsin and Purdue on Tuesday. With a loss from Wisconsin, the Illini will be neck and neck along with the pair atop of the conference and could be in line for a share of the regular season crown.
Securing a double bye with a top-4 seed for the Big Ten Tournament is also paramount at this point with key matchups against Penn State and Iowa still looming. Hopefully, the Illini’s signature interior/perimeter dominance that they showcased against the Wolverines can be carried over to these final two contests and continue throughout the duration of the postseason with a deep run into March.