Brad Underwood’s conference with his assistants was short.
With 24 seconds left in a tie game against the Michigan men’s basketball team, the Illinois coach and his staff huddled just a few feet from the Fighting Illini bench during a timeout. His players looked on as the staff devised a final play call.
“It wasn’t a very long discussion amongst the coaches,” Underwood said. “… We just chose to let (sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu) go.”
The call was simple. Underwood isolated Dosunmu — his best scorer — at the top of the key. No screens, off-ball motion or gimmicks of any kind. He wanted Dosunmu to have as much space as possible. Straight one-on-one basketball. Dosunmu’s only instruction was to begin his drive with six seconds left on the clock.
On the Wolverines’ side, senior point guard Zavier Simpson was tasked with stopping him. The very player who’s been lauded time and time again for his perimeter defense. The name that’s become synonymous with a pitbull mentality and relentless determination.
It was Big Ten basketball at its finest. The intensity in the moment, the implications of the outcome and, most importantly, the sheer will to win.
Dosunmu began inching closer when the clock struck six seconds, as Underwood directed. He drove left, planted his right foot at the free throw line and stopped on a dime. But when he tried to get a shot off, Simpson was in his face. He looked up and saw two seconds showing on the backboard clock. He brought his left foot across his body to create space, but it didn’t do much.
And with barely enough room to breathe, the 6-foot-5 Dosunmu elevated over the 6-foot-0 Simpson and rattled home a game-winning jump shot to push No. 21 Illinois past Michigan, 64-62.
“It’s what great players do,” Underwood said. “That last play was guarded as well as you could possibly guard it, and there was just a really good player making a really hard shot.”
The Fighting Illini knew exactly what they wanted to do with the last possession. The Wolverines, on the other hand, did not.
When a reporter asked Michigan coach Juwan Howard if he expected Dosunmu to be isolated, Howard began his answer before the reporter could finish the question.
“No I did not, I did not expect that at all,” Howard said. “I expected some type of wrinkle or high ball screen.”
That wrinkle never came. Instead, Dosunmu delivered his 26th and 27th points of the afternoon. With it, he became the fourth opposing player to set a new career-high against the Wolverines this season, joining Iowa’s Luka Garza, Purdue’s Trevion Williams and Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu.
“(Dosunmu) does a really good job of getting to his right hand and finishing in traffic,” Howard said. “He’s also good with the pull-up jumper. They run some ball screens with him, and he’s very crafty in using the ball screen. It just so happened today — every player has it in sports — sometimes, you’re going to have a great night. He had a great night.”
Added sophomore guard David DeJulius: “(Dosunmu) is a long guard, very crafty. He can shoot the ball off the dribble, off the set shot, able to get in the lane and create for himself and his teammates. He’s a really good player. He has a lot of options to his game and it’s hard to stop.”
It wasn’t a matter of Dosunmu catching fire at certain points. Michigan didn’t have an answer at any point in the game, as he scored 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting. He entered Saturday shooting 28.6% from beyond the arc before sinking two of his three 3-point attempts against the Wolverines.
“Basketball is about a rhythm thing,” DeJulius said. “They put a lot of confidence in him and put the ball in his hands the whole game and we kind of let him find a groove early. He just went with that because he had his juices flowing from the start.”
By the end of the game, Dosunmu’s rhythm was at its peak. It was only fitting for him to deliver the dagger.
“When you have a close game like that,” DeJulius said, “you leave it up for grabs to let anyone get the game.”
Dosunmu got the game.