CHAMPAIGN — Entering the second half of its afternoon contest Wednesday, the Michigan men’s basketball team looked like it was destined to come out on the losing end of a close fight in its first Big Ten test of the season.
Trailing by three points to start the second half after a largely anemic first period on offense, the Wolverines needed to get going to keep up with Illinois’ hot-shooting guards.
Mark Donnal wasted no time doing so.
After sophomore guard Duncan Robinson knocked down a jumper to start the second half, the junior forward scored the Wolverines’ next nine points to start the second half — part of a career-high 26-point day — and gave his teammates time to find their rhythm.
It didn’t take long — Robinson senior guard Caris LeVert, junior forward Zak Irvin and sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins all connected for 3-pointers within a four-minute span midway through the second half, allowing Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 11-3 overall) to pull away for a 78-68 victory.
“People are gonna load up on Caris,” Beilein said. “They’re gonna load up and make other people beat us. Well, you can’t load up too much on Duncan, and Zak can shoot — we all know he’s been just a dagger shooter for a while. It’s kind of like a golfer that goes through a putting slump — he’s starting to straighten it out. … Those other guys stepping up was huge for us.”
LeVert finished the game with 22 points, good for second on the team, and five Wolverines finished the game with eight points or more thanks to their second-half offensive surge, in which they made seven of 14 3-point attempts.
The rally was a stark contrast to the first half, which was nothing short of an offensive struggle for Michigan. The Wolverines lost 10 turnovers and committed a number of unforced errors, including a costly double-dribble by Dawkins on a fast break and an off-the-ball offensive foul by junior guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Illinois (0-1, 8-6) was able to consistently capitalize on Michigan’s mistakes — especially its live-ball giveaways — recording 14 points off turnovers in the first frame. The Fighting Illini also had no trouble connecting from long range, hitting six of 13 3-point attempts. Guard Jalen Coleman-Lands knocked down three triples in the half, including one with 26 seconds remaining to give the Illini their final points of the half.
“They did a great job getting the ball out of our hands,” Beilein said. “The double-dribble by Aubrey, it happens. We had another one where a guy fell to the ground, he walked — that happens. (But) it doesn’t lead to a run-out basket. Every time we picked it up and they jammed down on us and they got all ball, it was a basket or a 3 at the other end.”
The Wolverines only stayed in the game thanks to a joint effort from LeVert and Donnal, who together made up 22 of Michigan’s 34 first-half points and shot 10-for-15 from the floor.
The rest of the Wolverines shot just 4-for-15 in the half, with the biggest shot being a trey from Irvin to tie the game at 34 with 54 seconds remaining in the half after Illinois missed a wide-open layup. But LeVert was unable to find a shot at the first-half buzzer after Coleman-Lands’ 3-pointer, and he was whistled for traveling to send the Illini into the locker room with the lead.
Luckily for the Wolverines, the offense awakened in the second half and took better care of the ball — just five turnovers — and the defense stepped up its game, resulting in a hard-fought road victory to begin conference play.
“It’s tough to win in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “It’s tougher to win on the road. I thought the beginning of the game, we were back on our heels and it did not look good. Credit these guys for how hard they worked defensively — we had to get stops, and we were able to do that.”