CHAMPAIGN — Cinderella threw a shoe early Tuesday night and the band played on ... to the tune of The Conquering Heroes.
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Without daring to announce them, Illinois carried long-shot NCAA hopes into the home finale, and those dreams quickly went poof.
It was painless. Illinois was rendered helpless as red-hot Michigan ran up the largest winning margin by an opponent, 84-53, in 52 seasons at State Farm Center.
Michigan led 36-17 before the crowd settled in. The UI defense, which had excelled in three straight victories, was overwhelmed by some of the most spectacular first-half fireworks ever seen in the State Farm Center.
In 20 scorching minutes, John Beilein’s Big Ten champions drained 11 of 14 three-pointers, and Nik Stauskas’ long rainbow at the halftime buzzer made it 52-30. It was the first UI opponent to top 50 in five games, and another 20 minutes remained.
Approaching the arena record of 16 treys, Stauskas splashed Michigan’s 15th arc-shot with 9:32 remaining and sub guard Spike Albrecht tied the mark at 2:23. Stauskas’ 7-for-9 accuracy led a 16-for-23 assault, providing an idea of how hot Creighton was in hitting a Big East-record 21 treys against Villanova earlier this season.
Stauskas offered verification for those who see the Canadian sophomore as the Big Ten’s premier player. He is one of six conference athletes averaging between 17.1 and 17.9 in all games, and his 24 points brought his 28-game mark to 17.3.
With four straight wins, Michigan closes at home Saturday against Indiana and appears poised for a second straight run at the Final Four.
It is remarkable what Beilein has accomplished after the early departures of 2013 stars Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, and the injury loss of star center Mitch McGary.
No team in the Big Ten can match the fluidity and jump-shooting accuracy of these Wolverines, particularly since 6-5 sophomore Caris LeVert became such a steady contributor. They are averaging 75 points on 48 percent shooting and 40 percent three-point accuracy.
The stunning setback provided future indications of needed UI improvement.
But versatile announcer Mike Tirico, who worked the TV side with Dan Dakich, said it best when he commented that, if Illinois basketball was a stock, he’d recommend buying based on (1) all starters returning, (2) incoming talent and (3) the State Farm Center renovation.
Tirico cited an expected NIT berth as “something that would be very helpful as a learning experience.”
With Illinois falling to 6-11 and in ninth place in the Big Ten, coach John Groce said the Illini must “get off the mat once again at Iowa (Saturday).”
“We played a great team that was shooting very well. That coupled with our poor execution led to this result. They were terrific and we were poor. We made 18 of 34 two-pointers but they outscored us 48-6 on threes (Illinois hit 2 of 18). Once they got into rhythm, it was like throwing the ball in the ocean.
“There’s a reason why they’re No. 2 in the country in offensive efficiency.”
Rayvonte Rice put up a solid line of 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Only other UI bright spot was Kendrick Nunn, who penetrated for 14 points
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.