CHAMPAIGN — For 35 minutes on Thursday night at the State Farm Center, Illinois would not go away. Every time the Michigan men’s basketball team threatened to silence the Fighting Illini, they responded with a pair of stubborn baskets, serving solely to prolong a game with a seemingly inevitable outcome.
Thanks to junior point guard Zavier Simpson, the last of these insurgencies culminated at the 5:26 mark, when a fastbreak basket cut the Illinois deficit to seven. Simpson collected the ball off the ensuing inbounds, calmly dribbling up the court as he typically does before running the Wolverines’ offense.
Only this time, his trip up the court ended just beyond the 3-point line, where he stopped on a dime and fired up an ambitious 3-pointer. A 26.5 percent 3-point shooter on the season, it seemed like an uncharacteristic mental mistake from Simpson — until the ball splashed through the hoop, grazing nothing but net on its way in and silencing the Illini crowd one last time.
“Any time you hit a three when a team’s chipping back at the lead, I feel like it’s good,” Simpson said. “I just wanted to step in and just knock it down.”
On a team with five rotation players shooting over 33 percent from deep, Simpson might have been the last player expected to ice the game with a three. But that ability to get contributions no matter who it turned to is what allowed Michigan to overcome a strong Illinois performance and win, 79-69.
Just 36 seconds into the game, redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews bowled into an Illini defender, committing his first foul of the evening. Wolverines coach John Beilein responded by turning to his bench, glancing over his options, and summoning sophomore forward Isaiah Livers.
It’s a luxury that Beilein hasn’t had in nearly two weeks, but Livers took full advantage on Thursday, opening the scoring with a jumper from the elbow and scoring seven of Michigan’s first 17 points.
“We obviously missed him (when he was injured),” Beilein said. “Especially when Charles (fouled) like 50 seconds into this game. So having Isaiah come over, defend, do different things and just have him coming off the bench is huge for us. … We need him on this team, he’s been a real secret to our success.”
After Livers’s initial spurt, Illinois adapted, holding him scoreless for the next 30 minutes. In his stead, Matthews returned with 11 second-half points — one of five Wolverines to finish in double figures.
Junior center Jon Teske was Michigan’s most impressive player for much of the evening, finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds. When the Illini got within four points early in the second half, Teske — a 21 percent 3-point shooter — was the one who replenished the Wolverines’ advantage with a pick-and-pop three. Three minutes later, he used a three-point play to stymie a mini-Illinois run.
Even freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — flummoxed by the Illini’s high-pressure defense early on — finished with 15 points, including six in a four-minute stretch midway through the second half. After an early three, his last three field goals all came inside the paint, as did 42 of Michigan’s 79 points.
“This team has four or five guys that just scare the tar out of you with dribble-drive,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “And that causes matchup problems.”
As usual, though, it all ran through Simpson, who added eight assists and just two turnovers to his 16 points.
“Yeah, they didn’t take the ball out of Zavier’s hands,” Underwood said, when asked to explain the Wolverines’ second-half offensive improvement.
“Find the open man,” Simpson added. “If they’re personal like that, they’re definitely gonna try to wear you down, get in the gaps. It’s important that your decision making is precise. But at the same time, teams like this, you got to just go, you got to just play. … And I feel like we’re a very unselfish team, so if everyone just plays the right way, finds the open man, we’ll get quality shots.”
Ask Beilein and he’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter who those open shots fall to. But the answer from the other sideline might be more revealing.
“I think they showed tonight why they’re such a good basketball team,” Underwood said. “They had everybody in double figures.”