CHAMPAIGN – At halftime, Illinois’ famed mascot, Chief Illiniwek, danced for the final time.

After he was finished, the Michigan men’s basketball team might have made sure that 1998 remains the last time it danced.

The Fighting Illini used an early second-half spurt to propel them to a 54-42 victory over the Wolverines last night.

Michigan, which trailed by just four points at the end of the first half, committed five turnovers in its first seven possessions of the second frame. Illinois then went on a 13-4 run before the Wolverines knew what hit them.

The surge gave Illinois a 13-point lead that it never relinquished.

The loss puts Michigan on the brink of NCAA Tournament extinction with just three games remaining and no impressive road win on its record.

“When they went on that run, I think everybody was like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” senior Dion Harris said. “We were never able to rebound from that.”

The Wolverines had 20 giveaways as a team, including six from starting point guard Jerret Smith.

And Illinois didn’t just let those turnovers go to waste. The Illini scored 22 points off Michigan’s miscues.

“We just made some silly mistakes that we shouldn’t have made,” Smith said. “It’s something deeper than (discipline). We have to find out what’s wrong. We can’t worry about these mistakes.”

The Wolverines opened strongly in the first half. Michigan opened the contest on a 10-4 run, and executed well on the offensive end, taking the capacity crowd out of the game.

But just like in past road games, the Wolverines gave the lead right back.

The Illini answered with a 7-0 run of their own and took the lead for the first time.

Harris, who scored 22 points in the Wolverines’ 71-61 victory over the Illini back in January, struggled from the outset. On the Wolverines’ opening possession of the night, he threw up an airball from 3-point range. The Detroit native made just one shot all night, scoring two points for the game.

To make matters worse, senior captain Lester Abram, who had a season-high 25 points in that win over the Illini, netted just three points and was held to one shot attempt.

Abram, who was arrested earlier this week for driving with a suspended license, was in the starting lineup.

“Dion being 1-for-10 from the floor and Lester getting just one attempt, I’m shocked that’s what the stat line reads,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.

It wasn’t just Abram and Harris who struggled, though. As a team, the Wolverines shot just 37 percent from the field. The 42 points were the team’s lowest total of the season and come one week after netting just 44 in a loss to Michigan State.

The loss last night, coupled with the Spartans’ signature win over No. 2 Wisconsin two nights ago, have left the Wolverines a notch below their competitors for an NCAA Tournament bid.

“We have to learn how to put it together for 40 minutes,” Harris said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with our physical abilities. It’s just mentally, we have to focus in on every possession and every single minute and we’re not doing that.

“It’s never too late, but it’s getting late for us to be trying to put together those types of things.”

With one final salute to the home crowd, Chief Illiniwek signaled the end of an era for Illinois.

Little did he know, the night could have extended an era for Michigan – one without any NCAA Tournament appearances.

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