Illinois Falls To No. 13 Michigan, 72-61
March 1, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Illinois was down by eight at halftime Thursday and by all rights No. 13 Michigan's lead should have been more.
But the Illini clawed back and pulled to within a point with 15:37 to play and, with momentum on their side, looked ready to make a run toward their second straight win in a longshot bid to build a resume worthy of the NCAA tournament.
Three times over the next six minutes, though, chances to either tie the game or take the lead slipped through Illinois' hands. And Tim Hardaway and the Wolverines - who never trailed - put Illinois away 72-61.
"We had three or four possessions where just didn't make open shots," said center Meyers Leonard, who led the Illini with 18 points and nine rebounds. "They just kind of controlled the game and took it away from us from there on out."
The loss leaves the Illini (17-13, 6-11 Big Ten) needing a win Sunday at Wisconsin and a run in the Big Ten tournament to have any shot at the NCAAs at all.
"Nothing changes for us," embattled coach Bruce Weber said. "If you want to go to the tournament, you need to win games. We'll need to win at Wisconsin, and we'll have to win at the Big Ten tournament."
Hardaway led the Wolverines (22-8, 12-5) with 25 points and 14 rebounds and Trey Burke added another 21 points for a Wolverine team looking suddenly confident after a bad home loss last weekend to Purdue.
"That's all we tried to preach the last couple of days was faith, confidence and swagger," Wolverine coach John Beilein said.
Coming off that 75-61 loss at home to Purdue, Michigan knew if it beat Illinois, it then had a title chance if it takes care of Penn State on Sunday, provided Ohio State beats Michigan State that same day.
But the Wolverines hadn't won in Champaign since 1995.
Michigan turned to Burke in the first half and he answered with 14 points. And when the Illini slowed him down, the Wolverines looked to Hardaway in the second.
The sophomore was 6 for 7 from the field - including all four of his 3-pointers - and was 5 for 6 from the free throw line.
Down 35-27 at the half, though, Illinois opened the second half a 12-5 run, half of it three straight short-range buckets from the 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard. That pulled the Illini to within a point with 15:37 left in the game.
Leonard, whose Marine Corps brother, Bailey Leonard, surprised him by coming to the game during an unexpected visit home from Afghanistan, scored those points with 6-8 Jordan Morgan on the bench with a should injury.
Then Hardaway put some distance the teams.
With 9:14 left, he hit a 3-pointer that put Michigan up 49-44.
Forty seconds later, he sank another jump shot, this one shorter but finding nothing but net, for a 51-44 lead.
At the 7:49 mark, Morgan was back and chipped in with a two-handed dunk that made the score 53-44. The slam all but silenced the crowd and brought what had looked like a nervous Wolverine bench to its feet.
"That was the back-breaker for us," Weber said.
Burke was a force over the first 20 minutes.
He was 6 for 9 from the field with a couple of 3s - though he had some spotty Illinois defense to thanks for some of those buckets.
The Wolverines hit 54 percent of their first-half shots. Burke was well into double figures, but Hardaway already had nine and five rebounds to go with it.
And, most importantly, Michigan had led by as many as 15. Burke's jumper with 3:37 left in the half put the Wolverines up 35-22.
The Illini pulled to within 35-27 at half.
The Illini close the regular season at Wisconsin, hoping to get a win that with a run at the Big Ten tournament could help rebuild a crumbling postseason resume, something Leonard said they can still do.
"I don't know why everyone looks at us like we're some different team and acts like we're not capable of doing it, because we are," he said.