CHAMPAIGN – After 52 days and 13 consecutive games without a loss, the Michigan basketball team finally ran out of gas last night at Illinois.
And Illinois forward Brian Cook took full advantage.
Cook scored 26 of his game-high 30 points in the second half – Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 13-7 overall) scored just one more point, 27, in the same 20 minute span – and led the 13th-ranked Fighting Illini (5-2, 15-3) to a 67-60 victory, handing the Wolverines their first loss since Duke on Dec. 7.
“Certainly, Brian Cook’s second half was a tremendous effort by an outstanding player,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “He put his team on his back, and they responded and won a very tough basketball game.”
The Wolverines looked well on their way to a 14th consecutive victory for much of the night, extending their lead to as much as 45-35 with just 12:44 left in the game.
But Cook took over shortly after that, and the Wolverines began to unravel.
Michigan still held a six-point lead with 8:18 to go when freshman Graham Brown hacked Cook under the basket, fouling himself out of the game. Junior Bernard Robinson compounded the problem, throwing the ball off the backside of an Illini player after the whistle, earning a technical foul.
“I don’t know if (the technical foul) was a turning point, but it was a momentum builder,” Illinois coach Bill Self said.
Cook hit four free throws, closing the gap to two, and a 3-pointer by guard Deron Williams tied the game at 53 at the 5:54 mark.
“I think that we were in great shape,” Michigan forward LaVell Blanchard said. “We were playing poised, and we were playing with a lot of passion, and we just lost that after a while.”
After a Blanchard 3-pointer put Michigan ahead 56-55, the Illini finally took the lead for good on a Cook layup at 57-56.
Michigan overcame foul trouble, some poor outside shooting and a raucous sellout crowd of 16,500 at Assembly Hall, and was able to take a 33-28 lead into the half.
That first half included a technical foul on Amaker at 15:54 after the Wolverines had been called for the first four fouls of the game.
But a 13-0 Michigan run – featuring the Wolverines’ suddenly trademark 2-3 zone defense – gave Michigan a 24-16 lead with 7:32 to play before the half, a lead that the Wolverines maintained until that 3-pointer by Williams beat the shot clock late in the second half.
“We’ve watched a lot of tape (on Michigan), and I think they’re better in person,” Self said. “I think they’re really, really good.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the pendulum eventually shifted decisively over to Illinois’ side of the court.
Brown and fellow freshman Chris Hunter combined for 21 points, and Hunter added 10 rebounds, but with the two saddled with foul trouble, Cook eventually became too much for the Wolverines to handle.
“He hit some big shots, he’s a great player,” said Blanchard, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds.
“We’re certainly proud of what we were able to accomplish,” Amaker said. “This is a tough one to take.”