CHAMPAIGN – Illinois seniors Shawn Pruitt and Brian Randle taught the Michigan men’s basketball team a tough lesson last night – the immeasurable value of four years experience in college basketball.
In their 75-57 loss to Illinois, the youthful Wolverines couldn’t stop the Fighting Illini duo, which combined for 38 points and 17 rebounds.
Despite the play of the Illinois frontcourt, the latest setback for Michigan (1-4 Big Ten, 5-12 overall) differed from past lopsided road losses against Georgetown and Duke, where losses seemed inevitable.
This one was closer than the final score indicates. A nifty floater in the lane by sophomore DeShawn Sims culminated a seven-point run and tied the game at 43 with 12:35 remaining.
From there, it was all Illinois (1-4, 9-9). The Illini went on a 13-0 streak over the next five-plus minutes, eliminating Michigan’s hope of winning its second-straight Big Ten road game.
Michigan coach John Beilein tried everything on defense, but the Wolverines had no answer for Pruitt’s play in the second half. Whether battling man-to-man coverage, double teams, a 1-3-1 zone or even a 2-3, Pruitt found ways to be score.
The senior finished the game with 19 points, including eight of the Illini’s first 12 in the second half.
“We weren’t going to be able to guard him,” Beilein said. “(Sophomore) Ekpe (Udoh) is about 220 pounds and was just having trouble with the leverage he creates.”
On the other end of the spectrum was the play of Michigan’s youth.
Freshman Manny Harris, who said after the game he was limited by a right foot injury, had a career-low five points, committed three turnovers and had no assists. Sims had 13 points but shot just 6-of-15 from the field. And after his first double-double of the season against Northwestern Saturday, Udoh was ineffective, finishing with six points and six rebounds without a field goal.
The Wolverines’ inaccuracy continued. They shot a paltry 35.7 percent from the field, something Beilein has lamented constantly.
“We’re a team that’s going to struggle to score until we improve our shooting,” Beilein said.
The breakdowns on offense started from the game’s outset. The Wolverines’ nasty habit of slow starts struck again as Michigan missed eight of its first nine shots, turned the ball over four times and allowed Illinois to jump out to a 17-5 lead.
The sluggish beginning prompted Beilein to go to his bench.
Sophomore Anthony Wright and senior David Merritt teamed up to dig the Wolverines out of their hole, burying four 3-pointers in as many minutes – a rarity for this team.
Led by the duo’s hot streak from the outside, Michigan countered with its own 14-0 run and took its first lead of the game, 19-17.
But then Randle stabilized the Illini. He answered Michigan’s outburst, scoring on a putback on the ensuing possession. The forward had 15 first-half points, including 10 after Michigan tied the game, giving Illinois a four-point lead at halftime.
It was just another on-the-court lesson for a Michigan team still learning what it takes to beat older, wiser and tougher competition.
“It’s still us trying to find ourselves,” Harris said. “It’s stuff we could have controlled, but we broke down.”