Once the No. 17 Michigan basketball team figured out that knocking down foul shots was easier than making 3-point shots, it was able to overcome pesky Western Illinois and salvage a 59-55 win.
The Wolverines (3-0) launched 12 3-pointers in the first half and went into the break tied 28-28.
But in the second half, Michigan started to get into the paint and the Fighting Leathernecks could do nothing but foul for much of the half. Western Illinois put Michigan in the 1-and-1 bonus with 13:14 remaining in the period and the Wolverines took advantage. Sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr. attacked the rim and tallied 12 of his team-high 16 points in the second half.
“We got them in foul trouble early,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “And then we figured we’d just keep going at them, attacking them, we’ll get on the line and good things will happen.”
But Michigan could not get Western Illinois out of its hair. The Leathernecks (0-2) made timely shots and never let the Wolverines’ lead see double digits.
Guard Ceola Clark tormented Michigan all game and finished with 22 points. Clark was out last season with a toe injury and missed the Leathernecks first game this season. But his presence, along with Western Illinois’ 48.8-percent shooting, keyed the upset threat.
“Clark just controlled the pace of that game,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And we played hard, but we did not make shots and we had some times that we really had some blunders.”
With three minutes remaining in the game, Leatherneck forward Obi Emegano made a jump shot, drew a foul, but missed the free throw to keep the deficit at 51-46. Michigan came right down the floor, Hardaway put in a bank shot from the left side of the basket and the Wolverines held off the Leathernecks the rest of the way.
“We’re leaving early in the morning (for Maui), it’s the third of a back-to-back-to-back, the team came in, they shot the lights out,” Novak said. “That’s a recipe for an upset but we were tough and stayed with it.”
When the Wolverines penetrated in the second half, they were able to get a combination of points in the paint, free throws and kick-outs for jump shots to keep Western Illinois off the lead. They scored 14 points in the paint and made 9-of-14 foul shots in the frame. Redshirt sophomore center Jordan Morgan gave Michigan its best low-post game of the year, finishing with 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting and five rebounds.
Freshman point guard Trey Burke had the hot hand early on, draining his first three 3-pointers, but Western Illinois was also knocking down its shots. Michigan struggled to stop the Leatherneck shooters, who went 6-for-9 on 3-pointers in the first half.
Though the Wolverines took advantage of Western Illinois’ carelessness with the ball and forced 20 turnovers, they only got 2 points off of them. Michigan drew fouls, took the ball from the Leathernecks and saw strong post play from Morgan, yet still was unable to notch a convincing win.
Michigan’s offense has struggled in the early going, failing to top 64 points in its easy early-season schedule. The competition will heighten when the Wolverines head to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational next week. No. 10 Memphis will be their first test on Monday.
“We are trying to put together a team, but we have a different experience factor than we had last year at the end of the year,” Beilein said. “We just got to get integrated, but if we don’t shoot the ball well we’ve never been very good. We’ve got to do simple things like that.”