By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 12, 2012
Evan Smotrycz was filling up the stat sheet, Tim Hardaway Jr. was in rhythm on offense and the No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team won consecutive games.
It’s been weeks since any of those things were the case, but Sunday’s matchup with Illinois switched things around for the Wolverines.
The sophomore pair emerged from their prolonged struggles in the first half to give Michigan (9-4 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) a 70-61 victory and a winning streak — its first since early January.
When redshirt sophomore center Jordan Morgan fled for the bench after picking up two early fouls, Smotrycz stepped in and saw a rare stretch of extended minutes. Smotrycz made the most of those first-half minutes, putting up 12 points on 3-for-4 shooting and converting each of his four free throw attempts.
“It was good to see some shots go down finally,” Smotrycz said. “Guys had confidence in me.”
With 7-foot-1 Fighting Illini center Meyers Leonard also on the bench due to first-half foul trouble, Smotrycz saw little resistance, caught fire and buried two 3-pointers to help Michigan to a 37-31 halftime lead.
“He’s a big guy inside, takes up a lot of space,” Smotrycz said of Leonard. “We had trouble rebounding with him in the game, so it definitely helped — him getting in foul trouble. At the same time, I thought we did a fairly good job when he was on the floor of limiting his touches.”
Hardaway also experienced a 180-degree turnabout from his recent performances. His ten first-half points matched his output from the last two games combined. Though he was quiet in the second half, he wasn’t forcing shots like he had been in recent weeks. He finished with a team-high 15 points and was one of four Wolverines to score in double digits.
“I didn’t show emotion, but I was very happy inside,” Hardaway said about making his first 3-pointer since a Feb. 1 victory against Indiana. “Just seeing that one go in, I made sure on the second one I tried to do the same thing as I did when I shot the first one and not rush anything.”
Added Illinois coach Bruce Weber: “When your two worst 3-point shooters go 4-for-4 — Hardaway and Smotrycz — in the first half, it’s a killer. They have so many other weapons, they spread you out, but good teams make plays.”
After Leonard scored four points out of the gate to give the Illini an early lead, the Wolverines held the sophomore in check. They pushed him out of the post and hounded him with double teams to force Illinois out on the perimeter. Leonard was held to a single point in the last 38 minutes of play on 0-for-3 shooting.
The Illini (5-7, 16-9) led in the early minutes and took a brief 20-19 lead midway through the first half, but a 13-3 run put Michigan in the driver’s seat, a position it would not relinquish the rest of the way. The Wolverine lead straddled double digits during the second half and Weber’s team wasn’t able to threaten that lead.
Though guard Brandon Paul tried to keep the Illini alive in the final minutes, Michigan made its free throws down the stretch to shut the door.
Along with Smotrycz, junior Matt Vogrich gave Michigan a boost off the bench. After burying three 3-pointers on Wednesday against Nebraska, he drained two more in the second half on Sunday.
The first came with just under ten minutes left to add to the Wolverines a nine-point lead, and the second came from the corner to give Michigan a commanding 56-44 advantage. The Illinois native finished with eight points.
“It’s just a confidence thing,” Vogrich said. “Making that first one at Nebraska was huge, and I just feel good shooting the ball right now … The rim just seems to grow.”
Added Beilein: “We get that type of bench production, we can keep winning at a pretty high pace. We needed that.”
Sunday’s victory gave Michigan its 14th home victory in as many tries. In the Big Ten, only No. 11 Michigan State also remains unbeaten at home. But the next game should prove to be the most difficult one yet. The Wolverines host the third-ranked team in the country on Saturday.
“We got a tough one on Saturday with Ohio State coming here, and we’re going to enjoy this win,” Hardaway said. “But in the meantime, we all are thinking about what happened when we lost there.”