CHAMPAIGN – Michigan fans had been dreading to see the chink in the armor of their freshman phenom Daniel Horton, and yesterday they lamentably got a chance to see it during a 67-60 loss at Illinois. The loss snapped a 13-game winning streak that began before the exam period began during the fall semester.
With 11 minutes to go in the second half, Illinois’ own standout freshman guard, Dee Brown, challenged Horton and forced him to labor the ball across halfcourt by playing tight defense. Once across, Horton seemed all too glad to get the ball to a teammate.
“The thing is, you pick up the pressure, but the other guy is a McDonald’s All American, and he has jets too so you can’t just pick him up,” Illinois coach Bill Self said of Brown’s play on Horton. “He did an unbelievable job of picking his spots and made a couple of blunders, but not many.”
Just a few minutes later, Horton let go of a lackadaisical pass headed toward the Michigan bench. The pass seemed to lack the energy and mental readiness that usually accompanies his play and was one of the first times this season that Horton appeared to be flustered. The freshman finished with seven turnovers, matching his point total, to go along with two assists.
Horton, who is leading the team in minutes played, clocked in 39 last night, receiving his only minute of rest in the first half. Long nights like these are not unusual to the freshman, who has played 38 minutes or more in eight of his last 10 games. He is averaging 37.3 minutes per game to go along with 18 points in Big Ten play.
Horton “has played beyond his years for the majority of our games,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought tonight was a game where for moments, he played like a freshman. And you have to remember that he is going to have moments where he is going to play like a freshman. I think he has earned that right and deserved that right.”
But the problem for the Wolverines was that Horton was not the only one who seemed to hit the wall. Michigan’s zone defense, which was able to frustrate Illinois all first half, lacked the same intensity in the second.
The second half was a separate story for Illinois, which broke out of its 25-percent shooting funk to shoot 11-for-21, as Brian Cook dropped 26 points on the Wolverines in the half.
The Wolverine defense, which has carried the team through the end of games during the winning streak, seemed to be nonexistent. In the past several games, Michigan has been able to clamp down in the closing minutes, holding its opponents scoreless during key stretches at the end of the games. This defense had been allowing Michigan to hold onto leads and win the game from the charity stripe.
During a seven-minute span in the second half, Illinois chipped away at a 10-point lead to tie the game at 53 apiece with 5:54 to go.
But the run the Wolverines had been making in previous games was nowhere to be found, as Illinois wore them down. It did not help that Cook, who went 6-for-6 from inside in the second half, effortlessly answered every Michigan bucket as the Wolverines tried to pull away.
While senior LaVell Blanchard didn’t think his team was fatigued in the second half, the 39 points allowed in the second half, a conference high for the Wolverines, indicates otherwise.
In the end, it was the fresher legs that were the difference in the game, as the Wolverines struggled to keep up with a team that played with the energy of five puppies.
But the Wolverines will not get a chance to rest their tired legs, as they will have to hit the road again this weekend to play at Minnesota.