Cinderella’s clock appears to have finally hit midnight. With the Big Ten’s regular season title hanging in limbo, Michigan and No. 18 Illinois slugged it out in what was arguably the conference’s most exciting game of the year.

J. Brady McCollough

But when the dust settled, the Fighting Illini were dancing off Crisler Arena’s floor with a hard-fought, well-earned 82-79 victory.

And the devastated Wolverines were left to comtemplate what might have been.

“We haven’t been fortunate to win, but they’ve been two of the most entertaining games we’ve played this season,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said of the Wolverines’ two losses to Illinois.

“They earned the win.”

Let’s be honest: Michigan deserved better on Saturday.

With 13,057 fans making up what might have been Crisler’s most boisterous crowd of the year, the Wolverines put on a show.

Michigan matched the potent Illini blow-for-blow during the first half, taking a 46-44 lead into the break. The fireworks continued after the intermission, as senior LaVell Blanchard connected on three of his career-high seven 3-pointers, and the supporting cast chipped in admirably, as the Wolverines built a 66-59 lead with just over 10 minutes left.

The Wolverines were playing like last Wednesday’s 73-42 collapse at Wisconsin was merely an aberration for a team destined for a Big Ten title.

After that, though, for really the first time since the 0-6 start to the season, Michigan came back down to earth.

And by the time Wisconsin slipped past Minnesota yesterday afternoon, the Wolverines’ glass slipper was completely off, the carriage had turned back into a pumpkin and Michigan’s dream run at a conference title was all but ended.

What it would take for the Wolverines to grab a share of the regular season crown now would be even more of a miracle than the sudden and spectacular turnaround that they had pulled to get in position to make Saturday’s game hurt so much.

“It’s tough to take, because we played so hard, and we executed, and we still lost,” freshman Daniel Horton said.

That’s the painful double-edged sword that the Wolverines and their fans are now left with in the aftermath of the loss to Illinois.

On the one hand, just think of how far this team has come in so short a time. From the laughingstock of college basketball to being on the cusp of winning the school’s first conference title since 1985-86. In just over three months, this team has placed Michigan basketball back on the national radar.

But on the other hand, the Wolverines let a glorious opportunity slip through their fingers against Illinois. A win would have left Michigan needing to finish 2-0 against Purdue and Penn State to guarantee a conference title.

Maybe that’s why Saturday’s loss hurts so damn much.

It’s been such a long time since anything the Michigan basketball program has done on the court has meant so much.

This wasn’t just another early March conference game where the Wolverines were going through the motions while finishing out an 11-18 or 10-18 season.

This was, finally, a Michigan team playing for something bigger than “pride” or moral victories.

“The crushing part of it is we played so hard but still came out with a loss,” Michigan guard Lester Abram said. “We played hard enough to win the game, but it didn’t happen today.”

At the start of the year, a second- or third-place finish in the Big Ten would have looked like an outstanding accomplishment.

But the victories, and week after week being on top of the Big Ten standings gave the Wolverines and their fans another look at what success feels like.

There’s no question that the loss to Illinois hurts, but the Wolverines can take solace – if only a little – in the fact that losses only hurt this bad when the games mean so much.

Chris Burke can be reached at chrisbur@umich.edu.

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