CHAMPAIGN — With a shade over seven minutes to play and trailing by just one, Michigan had an opportunity.
Fifth-year guard Devante Jones held the ball at the top of the key, attempting to engineer a potential go-ahead possession. He waited until late in the shot clock, then made his move towards the basket. Jones rose to the hoop and flipped the ball towards the net, the Wolverines’ chance to grab their first lead of the game and potentially steal a road victory hanging in the balance.
The ball rimmed out.
Ninety seconds later, Michigan trailed by eight and the hopes of a win had quickly evaporated.
In a game where the undermanned Wolverines limited the impact of All-American center Kofi Cockburn and scrapped and clawed defensively to bog down Illinois, the offense could not hold up its end of the bargain. Jones’s shot was just the final nail in the coffin.
“I thought we just made a couple mistakes and they converted on (them),” Jones said.
Michigan was missing sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, which eliminated a reliable scoring presence down low. Unable to play through Dickinson, the offense had to get creative, running smaller lineups and hoping it could swing the ball quickly and knock down perimeter shots. But the game plan sounded better on paper than it looked on the court.
The Wolverines finished with just five assists on the night, well below their season average of 13.6. Michigan didn’t have an alpha on the court and there was seldom any offensive rhythm as a result. Possessions fizzled away, some ending with a strongly contested layup that stood little chance with Cockburn’s looming presence downlow.
But despite the disjointed effort, the game was still within reach.
In the first half the Illini struggled from the field — shooting just 8-20. But Michigan was even worse, going 9-32 and making just one three pointer. The Wolverines grabbed eight offensive rebounds and had opportunities to take a lead into the locker room, but the shots continuously found iron rather than the nylon. In the end, the three-point struggles were the most glaring deficiency.
The Wolverines shot an atrocious 1-10 from three-point land on the night, including wide open misses from Jones and freshman wing Caleb Houstan in the second half. Michigan kept the game within arm’s length most of the way, and a three-pointer here or there could’ve pushed it over the edge — but that payoff never came.
“We’re doing a really good job of being able to get some good shots,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Some of the shots did not fall.”
Houstan was the guy the Wolverines had envisioned being their sharpshooter, both tonight and throughout the season. After shooting 38% from deep last year at Montverde Academy, Houstan has yet to find his touch in college, and his 0-4 night dropped his season percentage to just 29%.
Michigan lacks the depth of three-point shooting it had a year ago and the numbers back it up. No other player attempted more than two three pointers on the night. And without Dickinson, if there ever was a night Michigan needed Houstan to get on track, it was tonight.
That didn’t happen.
There was no Dickinson, the three-point shots were not falling and the assists were not coming. And yet, the Wolverines still only trailed by one with seven minutes left. But in a game where they hung around all night long, the lack of execution down the stretch wasn’t ultimately what cost the Wolverines.
It was the lack of a consistent offense that held Michigan back.