Illinois went into halftime in Ann Arbor with a 37-36 lead over the Wolverines.
Michigan clawed its way back into the battle after a slow start. And while the Illini continued to excel on the glass, they simply did not do enough to put the pesky squad full of former AAU superstars away.
The Wolverines were buoyed by a visit from the entire Fab 5 earlier in the week. That team inspired lots of young men to pick up basketball. They were creative innovators on the court and counterculture rebels off it.
And that ends the poetry of this story.
Michigan punched back. Give them their due. They played like a team in a Big Ten heavyweight fight against a ranked team. They looked like young men who wanted to mount a head on their wall. They wanted to win this game for the coach who hasn’t won a game in this rivalry since he played for the Wolverines.
(Remember the “crackhouse” chants aimed at Howard’s teammate Jalen Rose?)
And they made multiple runs. But the Illini had more rounds in the chamber.
The game was what the great Jim Ross calls “bowling shoe ugly” in parts. But the Illini showed up and showed out in the second half. They gave the conference a preview of their emerging power. And in the end, the Illini emerged with an 88-73 victory.
Quincy Guerrier is the punisher.
He cleans the glass on both ends. He cuts to the basket when defenders turn their backs. He drills open threes. He drills contested threes. He gets in passing lanes and protects the rim.
He notched his sixth double-double of the season.
If you make a mistake, Guerrier will go full Frank Castle and make you pay. He is an excellent three-and-d glue guy.
Luke Goode is also an excellent 3-and-D glue guy.
Kevin Kugler pointed out that after the ridiculously stupid technical foul against Sencire Harris, Goode was the second person to go speak to Harris after Coach Brad Underwood.
And the announcers didn’t even mention that Goode used to be a quarterback after he showed obvious leadership. Fairplay, gents.
Goode is getting his open looks thanks to the huge games Domask and Guerrier have had. And he is capitalizing on those opportunities at a better clip as the season progresses. He’s an important weapon as the season progresses, especially as the rotation shortens.
So, is this really the backcourt rotation?
Look, I want to see Niccolo Moretti get his minutes and learn on the job. But his first-half cameo wasn’t thoroughly followed up. The young man has good playmaking instincts and shows a real desire to get his teammates involved. That might be of use as conference play rolls on.
Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn has as much two-way raw talent as anyone on the roster. I am still not sure why he’s completely out of the rotation, but his explosiveness could spell what the Illini lack without Sencire Harris. And that intensity combined with higher-end scoring prowess makes his absence from the rotation puzzling.
Ty Rodgers is going to be the best scorer in the history of the program. And Coleman Hawkins will be conference DPOY.
Okay, maybe not. But his increased offensive impact is invaluable. When you get his defensive prowess paired with the ability to create his own shot, you get a potentially lethal weapon. He and Hawkins are a menacing duo that can take over big games on both ends of the floor.
Hawkins notched another double-double against Michigan. It’s hard to come up with superlatives, but when he is on his game, there is no way he can’t beat you. His inside-outside versatility gives Illinois another gear when he is on. But again, will the consistency remain intact throughout conference play?
Hearing that I-L-L chant loud and clear in Ann Arbor was beautiful.
Keep it up, Illinois fans. During these tough times, you are supporting the team with the passion and ferocity they deserve.