Loren Tate: Hope floats for squad
INDIANAPOLIS — For 24 stunning minutes Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the UI’s collegians were rendered helpless in the whirlwind of Michigan stars playing for their NBA contracts.
This was the amateurs vs. the pros. These extraordinary Wolverines, relaxed and ultra-confident after serving Illinois a historic 84-53 thumping March 4 at State Farm Center, were loose, free and deadly. NBA scouts drooled at the sight of rangy sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, and began to wonder about Caris LeVert.
Such athleticism! Such explosiveness! When the spread reached 49-36, the Wolverines were shooting 59 percent (17 of 29). And Thursday’s Illini hero, Tracy Abrams, had yet to score.
But basketball is a game of runs and psychology ... and it occurred, once Abrams and Rayvonte Rice began to penetrate, that the Wolverines might tighten a bit if the Illini could close in.
Sure enough, with an effective 2-3 zone defense breaking the Wolverines’ rhythm, they began to resemble Indiana ... hesitant and uncertain ... and they missed 14 of their last 18 shots.
Suddenly, in an epic moment that will last a lifetime, there was Abrams, breaking free and pulling up for an 8-footer as the clock neared :01. There it was, half the distance of a free throw, and right in front, unguarded ... falling short off the front rim. Aaarrgg!
And with that 64-63 finish, Michigan enhanced its hopes for an NCAA No. 1 seed, and the Illini returned home to await Sunday night’s NIT assignment.
Two Big Ten tournament games in Indianapolis were clearly the UI’s best back-to-back performances of John Groce’s second season ... the most efficient, the most balanced and offering the most hope for the future.
No Illini scored more than 11 points Friday, but eight members contributed. Nnanna Egwu cashed three putbacks. Joseph Bertrand broke out of a nine-game slump. Everybody battled. It was awesome to watch.
Rice’s blistering drives put Illinois up 59-58 and 63-61 (he had another barely roll out). But Michigan pulled it out when Stauskas drew Egwu out of position and fed center Jordan Morgan for a bouncy layup at :07.9.
As he did in last year’s NCAA loss to Miami, Groce heaped praise on his squad and discussed the value of late-season momentum ... what it means to the fandom ... how it might influence a prospective recruit.
“We can take a lot from this, considering what we’ve been through,” the coach said. “We’re headed in the right direction.
“Even when we struggled, this has been a great group to be around, a high-character group.”
Explaining why he didn’t call time when Illinois led 63-62 with the shot clock running down, he explained: “We discussed it and felt they might switch to a 1-3-1 zone. We didn’t get a good shot so, sure, I wish we had done something different. Hindsight is 20-20.”
He also discussed Illinois returning to man-to-man for Michigan’s final possession. The answer is the same. It didn’t work so, sure, something else might have worked better.
A one-point game is always a second guesser’s paradise.
A well-oiled machine
First halves don’t count for much. They’re usually forgotten in the excitement of the finish.
But disguised in those 20 minutes Friday, even as Michigan built a 38-33 lead, was Illinois performing at an exceptional level.
Taking the court just 22 hours after leaving the hard-fought clash against Indiana, this was a team resurrected from the January-February doldrums.
Even when the Illini first righted the ship in late February, they didn’t look good doing it. Not so Friday. This was a team on a mission. There was a new level of decision-making and execution. Egwu has been outplaying every rival center. First Ekey, then Bertrand made valuable contributions off the bench.
Abrams came to Indianapolis with three field goals in his two previous games, ripped Indiana with 25 points and was a mighty second-half force against Michigan. Too bad, then, that he missed an 8-footer that would have blown Michigan out of the water.
Maybe, like me, he was surprised to find himself so open after taking the inbounds pass with :03.9 showing.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.