CHAMPAIGN — First it was a successful tip-in after his teammate missed a 3-pointer.
Then it was a contested layup to break a three-and-a-half-minute scoring drought. Later, it was a 3-pointer followed up by a block on the other end, and then it was a successful hook shot coming off an offensive rebound.
A Michigan big man built himself quite the highlight reel with his career day against Illinois on Wednesday — but it wasn’t sophomore Ricky Doyle, who started the majority of the Wolverines’ games last season at center and all but three this year. Nor was it Moritz Wagner, the German freshman with a penchant for flashy offense.
It was junior Mark Donnal, the former starter who lost his job to Doyle after just three games this season and entered the game against the Fighting Illini as the second big man off the bench.
Back when Donnal was struggling in the starting role, Michigan coach John Beilein often said that he had been a different player in practice — one who earned the job fair and square thanks to his effort and abilities. But for whatever reason, Donnal has been unable to replicate his performance in a game setting.
But Wednesday, Donnal finally validated Beilein’s words. When the dust cleared on the Wolverines’ 78-68 victory, Donnal had accumulated career highs in three categories: 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
Asked where his production and aggressiveness came from, Donnal deflected the attention to his teammates, especially senior guard Caris LeVert, who made an effort to feed the big men passes early to challenge Illinois’ shot blocking.
“It came really from Caris giving me a few assists to get some easy baskets early in the game,” Donnal said. “I kinda got rolling out of that, and then stepped up defensively, got some blocks. We played really well defensively, so everybody kinda fed off each other.”
LeVert may have had a hand in Donnal’s success on this particular day, but according to Beilein, this kind of performance has been a long time coming, especially considering Donnal’s recent performance on the scout team.
“We’ve been seeing him make progress,” Beilein said. “For some reason (it happens) when people get on that scout team. He was picking and popping them, knocking them down, going after the backboard. I just told him before the game, ‘You’ve had four hours to prove that you can play in this game, and you did.’ ”
But even after his biggest personal victory to date, Donnal refused to shed his modesty.
“It’s just a great team win,” he said. “Any game that we can win, I don’t care about my personal stats, I’m just happy to get a win. … I’m just appreciative of the opportunity, and try to take the most advantage of it.”
Donnal made no mention of redemption, nor did he even touch on any of his past struggles. But Beilein, who has watched the third-year player lose his starting job in his first two active seasons after redshirting his first year, now can justify Donnal as the prime example of hard work paying off.
“Everybody’s gotta earn everything,” Beilein said. “Everybody that you see ever play in games earned that opportunity, and now Mark is doing a good job understanding that, as a third year guy, ‘I’ve gotta earn this playing time, and Coach is not changing until I show what I can do in practice.’
“Sometimes handling success is the biggest thing — people will have a really big game and go back to their old selves. We wanted him to be hungry, and he was really hungry today.”