CHAMPAIGN — It’s been a while, but Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. finally played like the No. 13 Michigan basketball team’s two best players in the same game.
Not since Jan. 11 have the two guards topped 15 points on the same night, but Thursday’s contest at Assembly Hall saw both players dominating offensively. Hardaway, the sophomore from Miami, found nylon all night and scored a game-high 25 points in Michigan’s 72-61 victory over Illinois on the Fighting Illini’s senior night.
“I saw a different player out there,” said Burke, who finished with 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting. “He made big shots down the stretch when we needed him most and he really kept us in the lead.”
Hardaway Jr. saved his best conference game of the season for the second-to-last contest of the year. His frequent shooting woes came to an abrupt halt at Illinois, as he missed just two shots all night, going 6-for-7 from the field, 4-for-4 from behind the arc and 9-for-10 from the line.
“Having a winter break right now, Tim has used every bit of it,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He’s been in the gym like crazy. Just looking at his shot, we’ve been watching the video tape, seeing any different type of quirks that maybe he could work out. He’s such a student of the game, so he’s really worked at it.”
Hardaway Jr. was also aggressive on the boards, pulling down 11 rebounds to record his second double-double of the season.
“We’re so small and Coach Beilein gets on me about being the most athletic guy on the court for our team,” Hardaway said. “So, (I’m) just trying to go out there, just trying to get the ones that are possible above the rim.”
Burke had it going as well. His mid-range jump shot put the Fighting Illini in an early hole and it helped put the game away as the Wolverines (12-5 Big Ten, 22-8 overall) pulled away late.
“Coming off the pick-and-roll, (assistant coach) Bacari Alexander told me what was going to be open,” Burke said. “It was going to be that elbow spot right there at the foul line, just the pull-ups. I just made it a key for me to come off the screen and make (Illinois center) Meyers Leonard guard me. We went for mismatches and it worked out for us.”
The x-factors that tend to determine Michigan’s games were all swinging toward the Wolverines in the first half.
Hardaway was in a groove, Burke was slicing his way through the Illinois defense and even Michigan’s bench players were getting in the scoring column.
Michigan shot 54 percent from the field in the first half and made five of nine attempts from 3-point range. That shooting, combined with a decisive 17-12 advantage on the boards, put the Wolverines up 35-22 before the Fighting Illini (6-11, 17-13) cut it to 35-27 heading into halftime.
That lead shrank to one when Illinois guard Brandon Paul sank a free throw to make it 40-39 with just under 16 minutes remaining. But two consecutive Hardaway 3-pointers gave the Wolverines a cushion that would provide enough support to last the rest of the way.
“It’s definitely fun for me because when (Hardaway Jr.) is hot like that, coach calls his number, calls plays for him and I already know who I’m going to (pass to),” Burke said. “Because once he gets going, once he gets in rhythm, it’s hard to stop him.”
After being shut down by Michigan’s frontcourt in the Feb. 12 matchup at Crisler Center, the 7-foot-2 Leonard had his way throughout the second half. He scored 14 of his 18 points in the second frame and took advantage of Michigan’s troubles with their big men.
“He’s so big, you really don’t want him to catch it by the basket because it’s too easy for him,” said redshirt sophomore center Jordan Morgan, who was tasked with guarding the mammoth sophomore. “Sometimes you do a lot of fouling, just to try to get position.”
Added Beilein: “He’s a great talent and thank goodness we have all those fouls. We had nine fouls or something, maybe even more, that we could use on him without getting too deep into our bench or our size.”
Morgan injured his left shoulder in the second half after being involved in a collision, and though he returned, he wasn’t 100 percent the rest of the way. Evan Smotrycz had to spell his minutes, but the sophomore forward fouled out with just under four minutes remaining and also sustained a hip injury. Both will be evaluated when they return to Ann Arbor.
Illinois went on a 7-0 run to trim its deficit from 12 to 5 down the stretch, but the Wolverines converted on their free throws to salt away their first season sweep over the Fighting Illini since 1995.
During practice this week, assistant coach LaVall Jordan played up Michigan’s drought in Assembly Hall. He pointed out to the Wolverines extended slide at Illinois and motivated the team to change that.
“We had a blank on our board in practice and Coach Jordan said, ‘We going to change that?’ ” Hardaway said. “ ‘Just go out there and play hard, play smart, the last one will be March 1, 2012.’
“We made sure we got that done.”