CHAMPAIGN — It was supposed to be a night in which Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey were celebrated. Illinois’ fifth-year seniors were playing the final home games of their careers at State Farm Center on Tuesday. It ended up being a celebration for Michigan.
A couple dozen maize-and-blue-clad fans made their way close to the court to send coach John Beilein off after the 12th-ranked Wolverines blitzed the Illini, claiming an 84-53 win, winning the outright Big Ten championship for the first time since 1986.
“Thank you, Blue!” Beilein yelled at the fans as he, his wife Kathleen and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Nik Stauskas made their way to the festive Michigan locker room trailed by four camera crews.
As Michigan was making 16 of 23 three-pointers — seven from Stauskas (24 points) — Illini great Kenny Battle stood in the tunnel and shook his head with a laugh.
Illinois coach John Groce, looking on from the Illinois bench offered this: “I’ve never seen anybody shoot like that. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Even Beilein couldn’t have imagined his squad tying the State Farm Center record for made threes by an opponent.
“I haven’t seen that in practice even,” he said.
The biggest issue Michigan (22-7, 14-3 Big Ten) had on the night was figuring out where to situate the Big Ten trophy on the table during the postgame news conference.
“It’s kind of contagious,” Stauskas said. “One guy gets going, we all feed off it and we did a good job tonight.”
In the four games leading into Tuesday, Illinois opponents tried but failed to solve the Illini defense as Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State all failed to reach 50 points. The Wolverines did it Tuesday. In the first half.
“When you get an outcome like today, a good team like ours has to play really poor and a really good to great team like them has to play great, and that’s what happened today,” Groce said. “They played terrific ... give them credit.”
The loss ended a three-game win streak for the Illini (17-13, 6-11) and halted the team’s momentum — and folks’ dreams of a run into the NCAA tournament. Wins against the Wolverines and at No. 20 Iowa on Saturday would have further added to the excitement of potentially receiving an improbable bid, but it’s likely going to take a win next Sunday at the Big Ten tournament to get the Illini in the Dance, though that’s not the focus.
“Right now, where we are, you can’t control that. You have to worry about the process and playing well, and that other stuff takes care of itself,” Groce said. “That’s always a goal, every year that’s goal for us.”
The key is bouncing back from Tuesday’s 31-point setback, the largest in the 51-year history of State Farm Center for the Illini.
“It’s going to take a certain level of toughness, for sure. No one likes to get beat like that if you’re a competitor,” Groce said.
Rayvonte Rice scored a team-high 16 points to go along with nine rebounds, and two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Kendrick Nunn added 14 points.
It was a forgettable Senior Night for Bertrand, who was limited to nine minutes with a knee injury. Bertrand banged knees with another player, though he tried to continue playing.
“Paul Schmidt, our trainer and director of sports medicine, is going to take a look at Joe here. It’s something knee. Paul does not think it’s anything major at this juncture in his opinion, but we haven’t obviously taken an X-ray or done anything like that,” Groce said. “We’ll do all those things to make sure we do right by Joe and make sure he’s OK.”