Even after having an entire week off from practice, it still took the Michigan basketball team more than 23 minutes of game time to get going against Illinois in Sunday’s 71-58 victory.
Fighting off a slow start, the game remained close until about three minutes into the second half, when the Wolverines finally started to look like the seventh-ranked team in the country.
Not surprisingly, the player who started the run that broke the game open was point guard Trey Burke, who became just the seventh true sophomore in Michigan history to score 1,000 career points.
Left open about five feet behind the 3-point line, Burke hesitated before launching the NBA-range trey. His hand remained in the air until the ball was all the way through the hoop, giving Michigan just its second lead of the game.
After the Fighting Illini were called for an offensive foul, redshirt junior Jordan Morgan corralled a missed 3-pointer from freshman forward Glenn Robinson III and left Robinson with a beautiful behind-the-back pass for a massive dunk.
Illinois didn’t score for almost three minutes after Burke’s long make, falling into a nine-point hole it couldn’t pull out of. Like so many games this season, a big play by Burke was the kick-start to a big run.
“He just is really a special player,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We love what he’s brought to the team, in practice and everything. It’s special.”
Before the spark that ultimately gave the Wolverines the lead, they looked stuck in a rut for the first 20 minutes of the game, playing the Fighting Illini to a three-point halftime deficit.
With Morgan still slowed by an ankle injury he suffered almost a month ago, the Wolverines’ interior defense looked shaky. Illinois had eight offensive rebounds in the first half, outrebound Michigan 18-12 in the period and found open layups when Morgan was on the bench.
Freshman forward Mitch McGary started and had a fine game, scoring six points and displaying some of the athleticism seldom seen from 6-foot-10 players, but the interior defense was noticeably different with Morgan in the game.
The veteran forward managed only one point, but his impact came on the other end of the floor, back in his spot as Michigan’s defensive quarterback.
Of Michigan’s 71 points, 43 of them came in the second half. Morgan played just five minutes in the first half, but 12 in the second.
“(Morgan) reacts just a little bit quicker than the other bigs,” Beilein said. “Is he faster than the other guys, is he taller, does he block shots better? No, but he anticipates much better than the younger players do.”
The saving grace defensively came from turnovers. Michigan converted on each of Illinois’s 13 turnovers, resulting in 27 points.
“If you turn the ball over against them, it’s a dunk or a three,” said Illinois coach John Groce.. “I thought that us more than anything, some of those live-ball turnovers.”
The transition game, led by Burke, was spot-on for most of the contest. Burke had another ultra-efficient game, finishing with 26 points and 8 assists, while going 8-11 from the floor.
“He’s just a cool cat, man,” Morgan said. “Nothing phases him. It’s a great honor to play with him, someone at his level.”
For a team that was routinely blowing out opponents all season, the Wolverines first double-digit lead of the month didn’t come until a little more than five minutes left in the contest, when freshman forward Caris LeVert hit a 3-pointer.
Still, even with the slow start, it was an important win for Michigan. After losing three of five so far in February, and narrowly beating Big Ten bottom-feeder Penn State their last time out, the Wolverines couldn’t afford another let down with the regular season winding down.
“I feel like today was really our first step of getting our confidence back and getting our swagger back,” Morgan said. “(We are) getting back to the basketball we like to play.”