The Michigan basketball team suffered a serious case of schizophrenia in its Big Ten opener against Illinois last night.
The lethargic and uninspired collection of individuals that
ho-hummed its way to an unimpressive 12-3 record – beating just the opponents it was supposed to in the nonconference season – turned into a passionate team that played with a visible desire to win, and something else not often seen this year: confidence.
There was Courtney Sims fighting through two Illinois defenders to snag an offensive rebound, gather himself in the post and score. The senior finished with 10 rebounds.
There was Lester Abram taking the ball strong to the hole, absorbing the contact, scoring on his way to finishing with a game-high 25 points.
There was Dion Harris pulling up off the dribble for jumpers and catching fire from the outside to spark a second-half run.
And there was Michigan, notching an extremely important 71-61 victory to start the new year off right.
“It’s a home game in conference play, and I think we knew it was a big night for both teams,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “Our kids did a magnificent job of feeding off our energy and our crowd.”
Michigan’s inspired play energized the crowd, which in turn gave the players an extra spring in their step. But despite playing their best basketball of the season, the Wolverines could not shake free of Illinois early in the second half.
With 13:04 left in the game, Michigan held a slim 42-41 lead.
From there, the Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) offense hit a level not yet seen this year.
Harris dribbled to the paint and pulled up for a mid-range jumper. On the next possession, the Detroit native stroked a long three, leaving his hand in the air knowing the shot was good the whole way.
“Once you get into the lane, they are easy buckets,” Harris said. “So then you step back, and the jump shots seem easier, too.”
Off a media timeout, Illinois switched to a zone defense in an attempt to stifle the Michigan run. The Wolverines swung the ball until Ron Coleman found Reed Baker open on a cross-court pass for a three. On the next possession, Harris came free off a pick to knock down another long bomb, forcing Illinois to switch back to a man defense. Harris finished with 22 points, second only to Abram on the night.
“It’s obvious that he got it going,” Amaker said. “You could just see it in his body language and the way he was taking shots. When he got the ball up at a certain point in the game, I just felt like it was going to go in.”
Illinois (0-1, 12-4) refused to go away, and a layup off a Jerrett Smith turnover brought it within four in the final two minutes.
Abram responded with a jumper, the Wolverines forced a turnover on the next possession and Abram knocked down two free throws to put Michigan up 65-57 with 57 seconds remaining. From there, Michigan played the free-throw game to salt away the victory.
Knowing it desperately needed to start the Big Ten season off with a win on its home court, Michigan scratched and clawed for anything it could get to take a 29-25 lead into the break. Nine Wolverines saw action in the opening frame, with just Harris and Abram logging more than 13 minutes. The numerous substitutions allowed Amaker to keep his players fresh, as the Wolverines tried to get themselves and the crowd going on each possession.
Sims had six rebounds in just seven minutes (due to foul trouble) in the first half, and Abram tallied 12 points on nine shots. It was clear the Wolverines were determined to put forth a better effort than they had previously shown.
Michigan can only hope it continues to forget the team it had been as the year continues.