A brass ring was presented to the Michigan basketball team Saturday afternoon when it tipped off against Illinois. It was a chance for the Wolverines to atone for their worst performance of the season, seize control of first place in the Big Ten and play its biggest game against Illinois since the 1989 Final Four.
And while the Wolverines reached for that ring with outstretched force, they could only close their fist on the vacuum left by their prize, seconds after Illinois had plucked it away.
They were presented with several chances to win the game that both teams called one of the best-played games of the season. But in the end it was experienced No. 18 Illinois (10-4 Big Ten, 20-5 overall) that left Crisler Arena with the 82-79 win over Michigan (9-4,16-11).
With less than a minute to go, Michigan freshman Chris Hunter grabbed a rebound off a missed LaVell Blanchard 3-point attempt and was fouled by Brian Cook while putting the ball off the glass and into the hoop. The 3-point play put Michigan up a point, allowing it to gain its first lead since a 66-59 advantage with 8:17 to go.
On the ensuing possession, Illinois freshman Dee Brown missed a shot that traveled through a Wolverine’s hand on its way out of bounds. Had Michigan grabbed the rebound, it would have given it the ball with 1:35 to go and a one-point lead. Instead, Illinois got the ball back, and Brown hit a jumper from the free throw line with Hunter in front of him.
Michigan then failed to create a shot on its next possession and with the shot clock running down, Horton tossed up a running jumper in the lane that seemed to hang in the air – freezing time in Crisler. The shot couldn’t find the net for Horton, who shot 4-for-17 in the game.
Illinois capitalized in transition, as James Augustine put in an uncontested bucket in the paint on a feed from Brown.
Down three with 32 seconds remaining, Horton was able to get the ball to Blanchard who had a play drawn up for him. But his defender quickly closed on the senior, who set a career mark for 3-pointers made in a game with 7-for-11 shooting, and Blanchard was forced to pass the ball to an open Lester Abram.
The freshman, who had not taken a shot in the half after scoring 16 in the first, then put up a shot that had all the hopes of a Michigan Big Ten Championship on it. The attempt, taken from the left side of the key was off and Roger Powell grabbed the rebound before being fouled. It was the second time this season that Abram had taken a 3-pointer in the final minute of the game that could have tied the score, with the first such shot coming in a loss at Minnesota.
A wild Abram layup attempt and three Illinois free throws later, the game was over and Michigan had failed to defend its all-important home game.
“We had a couple of chances,” Abram said. “Had we got a stop when Dee Brown took that jump shot that would have been huge. We didn’t get that stop. Then I missed the 3-pointer to tie it up, and then I missed the layup. We just couldn’t get it done down the stretch.”
“It was hard to take a loss like this especially because either team could have come out of this victorious,” junior Bernard Robinson said. “And to be taken at home like this and to lose such a meaningful game, it hurts a little bit.”
Robinson put the Wolverines up by seven with 10 minutes to go in the game. But much like the first time the two teams met, Cook took control late in the second half, as he poured in eight points in less than three minutes. He was aided by the refs who made two questionable calls on Michigan center Graham Brown than sent Cook to the free throw line.
Unlike the first time the two teams met, Blanchard went step-for-step with Cook, a fellow senior, as he scored 25 on 9-for-14 shooting and grabbed seven boards. After the game, Blanchard in a moment of rumination, admitted that Saturday was the “biggest game of my career.”
“He was determined, and single handedly got us off to a good start,” said Michigan coach Tommy Amaker who unexpectedly stood up and prematurely ended his post-game press conference Saturday. “I think he was determined to will his way to a good performance today.”
With Wisconsin’s road victory over Minnesota yesterday, it will take a Wisconsin win over Illinois on Wednesday and a Minnesota win at Illinois next weekend combined with Michigan winning its last two games for the Wolverines to capture the Big Ten Championship.