Ayo Dosunmu called game.
Despite being hounded by Zavier Simpson, the sophomore guard, with ice in his veins, rose up over Michigan’s shorter senior point guard and drained the go-ahead jumper from the elbow with just .05 seconds on the clock.
“That last play was guarded as well as you could possibly guard it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It was a really good player making a really hard shot. The one thing Ayo has at 6-foot-5 is the ability to get it over smaller guards so we just chose him to let it go.”
Just moments earlier, a much-needed victory over the Fighting Illini was within the Wolverines’ reach.
But, after missing five consecutive free throws, the Michigan men’s basketball team (11-8 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) provided Illinois (15-5, 7-2) with the only lifeline it needed, ultimately losing its fourth straight game, 64-62.
Spurred on by the return of junior forward Isaiah Livers, who missed the last six games with a groin injury, the Wolverines got off to a hot start — something they’ve failed to do of late.
Despite struggling against the Fighting Illini’s 7-foot, 290-pound Kofi Cockburn in the two teams’ previous matchup, senior center Jon Teske went right at him in the early going, scoring off a nimble spin-move on the block and knocking down two free throws after drawing a foul. At the under-16 timeout, Michigan held a 9-6 advantage.
Illinois’ offense wouldn’t be contained for long. Its backcourt — one of the best in the conference — of Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu led the way, killing the Wolverines with their outside shooting. Frazier knocked down two deep 3-pointers to quell Michigan’s energy, while Dosunmu’s mid-range game and slashing drives to the bucket were equally potent. The pair, which combined for 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting in the first half, launched the Illini into an eight-point lead by the 7:58 mark.
Poor shooting plagued the Wolverines during that stretch, going scoreless over a four-minute stretch. With their momentum interrupted and their backs against the wall, Michigan’s veterans responded though. Teske, Livers and Simpson sprung to life late in the half, getting to the basket at every opportunity. In classic Simpson fashion, after lulling his defender to sleep at the top of the key, he bulldozed his way into the paint on multiple occasions, either drawing a foul or finishing the layup. Simpson polished off the first half with nine points in the final three minutes.
And yet, despite the Wolverines’ best efforts, Illinois had an answer on the other end and entered the locker room up 34-30.
Michigan exploded out of the locker room. After Cockburn, who was scoreless in the first twenty, converted a layup over Teske, Simpson and the Wolverines’ offense went to work.
Orchestrating the offense to perfection, Simpson found Livers on the wing for a wide-open three. Freshman forward Franz Wagner also chipped in with two and-one layups.
Michigan’s positive spurt to open the half was promptly halted five minutes in when Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams fouled Livers hard on a dunk attempt. The junior landed awkwardly, seemingly re-injuring his groin. After hitting both free-throws, he limped back to the bench and a hush fell over the Wolverine faithful.
“Unfortunately for Isaiah, he went out with his injury,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We pray that he comes back healthy. His effort out there today was great. The energy from the crowd just shows how much he’s a huge part of this team’s success.”
Over the next few minutes, the Illini capitalized on the vapid atmosphere. As was the case all afternoon, Dosunmu proved to be Michigan’s kryptonite defensively. On consecutive possessions, Dosunmu pulled up from beyond the arc and hit a stepback jumper from the wing.
“(Dosunmu) has been playing some good basketball these last few games,” Howard said. “He’s a very crafty player and does a really good job getting to his left hand and finishing in traffic. He’s also really good at getting to his pull-up jumper.”
And, as was the case all afternoon, the Wolverines fought back. They were able to get stops defensively, forcing Cockburn to take some tough shots in the paint. Michigan regained the lead when Teske drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 6:35 remaining.
The closing minutes were characterized by one thing: lead changes. For every basket Dosunmu added to his final total of 27 points, the Wolverines collectively responded. Sophomore guard David DeJulius even gave Michigan a slender, two-point advantage after hitting a contested three from 30-feet.
From there though, things unraveled for the Wolverines.
Despite holding Cockburn to just five points and three rebounds, containing Trent Frazier in the second-half, out-rebounding the Illini and committing just two turnovers, Michigan let the game slip when it could least afford to.
“We tried everything. I don’t think anybody can tell us that we didn’t play hard today,” Wagner said. “It just didn’t happen again. Free throws and a couple defensive lapses cost us. It’s tough.”