Fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons maneuvered out of a crowded paint area, looked up and saw freshman guard Jordan Poole sprinting down the court. Simmons fired a laser to Poole, who casually lofted the ball in the direction of the hoop.
“I got the pass and I kinda peeped (Isaiah Livers) at half court,” Poole said. “We made eye contact, so I’m looking like ‘I’m gonna throw it to the rim, big boy, you gotta go get it.’ ”
With an emphatic alley-oop flush, Livers — Poole’s roommate — erased Michigan’s early doldrums to give the Wolverines the boost it needed, en route to a 79-69 win over Illinois.
A multitude of mistakes — turnovers, fouls, missed shots — dug Michigan an early hole, though. Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews picked up a foul away from the ball just 16 seconds into the game. Junior center Moritz Wagner made a three-point bucket, then turned the ball over and committed an unnecessary foul on the other end immediately after. Both fouls relegated Michigan’s two stars to the bench before the first timeout.
And just seconds after checking back in, Matthews picked up an offensive foul, forcing an uncharacteristically angry John Beilein to bring Poole back in. Matthews, Michigan’s leading scorer on the year, played only one first-half minute.
But led by a storm of energy from the freshman duo of Poole and Livers, Michigan crawled back to eventually grab the lead late in the half. The two combined for 14 of the team’s 31 points in the half, despite neither starting the game.
Robinson also pitched in with nine points in the first half.
“I was really pleased,” Beilein said when asked about his message at halftime. “That was my message to the team. I didn’t go in there ranting and raving. I just said, ‘Look, I feel in a really good place that we’re down three right now.’ We got used to it a little bit. You know, we tried to simulate it for the last two days, and our scout team just doesn’t have that length and that quickness. So it hit us right in the face, and then we had to react to it. Don’t blame our guys, credit Illinois. They did a great job.”
The Wolverines shook off the first half woes quickly, starting the second half with a game-altering 9-2 spurt to give Michigan a lead it would keep for good.
Wagner and Matthews struggled with foul trouble throughout — each picking up a third foul less than five minutes into the second half. But Poole and Livers were able to shoulder much of the load, combining for 23 points on just 10 shots.
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 13 points of his own, all coming in the second half. Six Wolverines finished in double figures.
“I don’t think there’s anything pretty about how we’re playing,” Beilein said. “At the same time we’re just finding ways still to get out in front of people and win games.”
Though he only played 22 minutes due to foul trouble, Wagner showed signs of shaking the rust that has led to struggles since returning from an ankle injury a week ago. He scored 14 points on an efficient 6-of-7 from the field.
Though they struggled at times — setting a new season-high with 14 turnovers — the strong second half proved to be too much, earning Michigan its third conference win of the season.
“(In the) second half, I’m so proud of the way we played,” Beilein said. “We had 12 turnovers in the first half, three in the second half. There’s the difference in the game.”