By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 14, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS — On to Saturday.
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It wasn’t the type of win the Michigan men’s basketball team was looking for, but it would have to do.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines found themselves down 63-62 to Illinois with 19.1 seconds remaining at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday afternoon. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas took the ball out of a timeout, got a screen, looked to shoot and then found a rolling Jordan Morgan. The fifth-year forward laid the ball softly on the rim. It danced a bit, but fell through.
Illinois coach John Groce called a timeout with 3.9 seconds left to try to give his team the magic it had last year when Brandon Paul hit a buzzer-beater to topple Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
A miss meant that the Wolverines could rest easy that the Big Ten Tournament hadn’t harmed their NCAA Tournament résumé. A make meant a weekend of uncertainty and doubt that Michigan is where it needs to be at this time of the year.
Tracy Abrams found a clear path to the basket on the right side, and he put up a floater.
“When that ball was in the air, I think everybody held their breath, because he got a great look at it,” said sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III. “Just a little bit short.”
Exhale. Michigan survived, 64-63.
If nothing else, the Wolverines (24-7) ensured that an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament wouldn’t boot them into a weekend of limbo. Michigan is in the hunt for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and it made sure to stay in that discussion with the narrow escape.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous out there,” Stauskas said. “I normally don’t get nervous in games, and you kinda look at the clock with a minute left and you’re down, you kinda get that feeling in your stomach like, ‘It can’t end this way.’ ”
In the timeout before Michigan’s last possession, Beilein called a play that could work whether the Illini went to man or zone defense, which they rotated between all game.
Walking onto the floor, Morgan didn’t think he’d be getting the final shot — the ball would be in Stauskas’ hands.
“He told me he was gonna shoot it regardless,” Morgan said.
Until the last second, that was the plan.
“I just thought like I had missed so many shots before that, that the next thing I shoot regardless of what it was, it was gonna go in,” Stauskas said. “I came off the ball screen with that mindset, and I was gonna shoot, but at the last second I saw him rolling.”
Although he was ready for the pass, Morgan was still surprised that Stauskas got rid of the ball. Morgan has been taught to go up strong and dunk the ball in those situations, but that’s not what happened.
“I don’t know what it was,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if it was a baby hook or a finger roll, it was kind of in between.”
And thanks to the impromptu dish and shot, the Wolverines advanced.
All seemed to be going well for Michigan until midway through the second half, when a 13-point lead quickly evaporated. The Illini peppered the offensive glass and took it to the rim to exploit a skittish defense.
The Wolverines led until five minutes remained in the game, when Rayvonte Rice drove on sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht, laid the ball off the glass and gave Illinois its first lead since the opening minutes.
Michigan’s shooting, which looked so good in the first half, failed the team down the stretch as bricked 3-pointers and off-center free-throw attempts put Illinois (19-14) in the driver’s seat.
“I just think we had a tough time making shots,” Morgan said. “I think we kind of got a little stagnant.”
The sophomore trio of Stauskas, Robinson and Caris LeVert were all strong in the first half but lost their stroke in the second. LeVert missed the front end of a one-and-one down the stretch, and Stauskas missed the second of two free throws in the final minute that could have tied the game.
“You’ve got two 80-percent foul shooters that went to the line and went 1-for-3 during that time,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It’s just part of this time of the year and part of basketball. … They’re gonna have ups and downs.”
Stauskas led the team with 19 points on just 4-for-12 shooting, though he made nine of his 10 foul shots. He was a menace to the Illini when he drove to the rim and drew fouls.
Michigan was coming into Friday’s contest with nearly a week off since its last game. It seemed like the rest was helpful in the first 30 minutes, but then it appeared like the rust was dangerous in the final 10.
The Illini were playing for a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and their hunger was evident. They shot well at 46 percent and got extra opportunities with offensive rebounds, turning a 55-44 Michigan lead with 11:26 remaining into a 61-58 Illinois lead eight minutes later.
Beilein’s team was against the ropes.
“The runs are gonna happen, and you’ve just got to quell the run and make big shots, and we couldn’t,” Beilein said.
Momentum seemed to favor Illinois until the last two possessions of the game. Then, Michigan was able to find the luck that has graced it in close games throughout the regular season.
“That’s the just the way it rolls sometimes,” Morgan said. “We’ve been blessed this year to have a lot of breaks go our way. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”