Illini hit speed bump despite Dosunmu's big night

Illini hit speed bump despite Dosunmu's big night

CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu repeatedly sliced his way through the Michigan defense in the first half Thursday night at State Farm Center. Had his jumper going, too — enough to bank in a late buzzer-beater from three-point range that gave him 19 points at the half.

Illinois’ defense was locked in early, too. The Illini frustrated the No. 2 team in the country into what was beginning to look like the start of a season-high number of turnovers.

It just wasn’t sustainable. The story of the season so far for Illinois.

Michigan ultimately fended off a few Illinois rally attempts for a 79-69 victory in Illinois’ first Big Ten game at State Farm Center. The crowd of 10,770, though, headed home experiencing much the same as they had all season with the Illini close — competing — but not able to close it out.

“I thought we played well enough defensively (Thursday),” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I was really impressed with our guys’ effort and our attentiveness to the scouting report. We turned them over 11 times in the first half.

“That’s good enough to win. The percentages were low. Yet we had some inconsistencies on the offensive end. When you start down (11-4) to the second-ranked team in the country, you’re battling uphill. It makes it difficult.”

Dosunmu was about the opposite of inconsistent. The 6-foot-5 freshman guard put Illinois on his narrow shoulders in the first half, single-handedly keeping the Illini in the game with his first-half scoring outburst and the defense to match like his first of two chase down blocks on Michigan guard Zavier Simpson.

Dosunmu’s game-high 23 points was his third 20-point performance in the last four games as he’s turned up his production several notches after an up-and-down start to his freshman season. He’s found some consistency.

“If you know Ayo as a person, he’s a student of the game,” Underwood said. “The best thing about Ayo that I’ve been the most impressed with is he’s an unbelievable listener. He thrives on gathering information and wanting to know. The sequence of games where he was missing layups, we challenged him to do other things. Go rebound.

“It’s very seldom you go tell a guy to go do something, and he does it at a really high level. Then you tell him the layups are going to start going in at some point, but keep rebounding. Most guys can’t do that.”

Dosunmu did. And did so with a team-high seven rebounds Thursday against Michigan. He led the Illini in all facets.

“He’s stepped up a lot,” Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier said earlier this week about Dosunmu. Frazier also got a couple three-pointers to fall Thursday and had 13 points as a complement offensively to Dosunmu against the Wolverines.

“It’s incredible the things he’s doing,” Frazier continued. “He’s scoring the ball phenomenal right now, and he has so much confidence to have the ball in his hands at times in the game where I’m struggling or where I’m not in the game to take over.

“That’s the mindset we’ve got to continue to have for him. I think once me and him start rolling like that and we play unbelievable at the same time I don’t think any team is going to be able to beat us.”

Wolverines’ coach John Beilein was just as impressed as Underwood and Frazier. How Beilein saw Dosunmu play with Mac Irvin Fire on the Nike EYBL circuit is what he saw Thursday night in person at State Farm Center.

“He’s doing it right now,” Beilein said. “He’s a much more complete player sort of like our kid Iggy (Brazdeikis). He’s just playing above his years as a freshman, and that’s important. If you’re going to win — and you need freshmen — they need to play above their years.”

The wins part is what’s still eluding Illinois at this point. Thursday’s loss was both a fifth straight overall and fifth straight in the Big Ten. The Illini’s 0-5 start to conference play has only happened seven times in program history. This year and last, though, are the only times it’s come in consecutive seasons. Last year’s Illini lost eight straight in the Big Ten before getting a conference win.

“We just have to keep growing as a group,” said Illinois freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who had 15 points against Michigan. “We’ve lost those games, but we’ve made progress as a group. We became closer together. We just have to keep growing and keep working.

“We can’t look back. We have to look forward. We just have to keep working and keep getting better as a group. Keep fighting. We have us. That’s who we have.”