Saturday’s basketball game at Crisler Arena quickly proved to be a clash of epic proportions. It looked like neither team was going to miss a shot, as Michigan and Illinois, two of the top three teams in the Big Ten, came out on fire. The stars led the way for both teams, as the Fighting Illini’s Brian Cook and the Wolverines’ LaVell Blanchard scored team-highs of 26 and 25, points respectively.
Blanchard was especially hot in the first half. The senior forward connected on four of his six shot attempts from behind the 3-point arc and hit both of his shots inside the paint for 16 points before the break.
In the second half, Illinois made several defensive adjustments, but none was bigger than switching Roger Powell to guard Blanchard. Blanchard had continued to knock down the three at the beginning of the half, until Illinois coach Bill Self called on the athletic forward to try to shut down the hot-handed Wolverine. Blanchard’s play wowed all those who saw him, including Self who knew he would have to figure out some way to stop Blanchard to win the game.
“LaVell was awesome,” Self said. “Their whole team played great. Roger still let (Blanchard) hit two threes on Rog, but Roger is competitive, and I don’t think LaVell got another shot off the rest of the game.”
Powell and Self had a simple strategy to shut down Blanchard: Never lose him.
“I just didn’t leave him,” Powell said. “I stuck to him like Velcro. He was hitting some big shots, so I couldn’t let him get any air.”
The strategy worked. With Powell on Blanchard, the Michigan tri-captain was stifled. Blanchard hit one triple even with Powell’s hand in his face as he elevated in the corner over Powell and knocked down the shot. This just served to ignite Powell’s competitive nature.
“Coach said, ‘Stick to him.'” Powell said. “So that’s what I did. He hit one on the baseline on me, and I was in his face. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to get up on him a little more.'”
After that, Powell was Blanchard’s shadow, and as a result, Blanchard did not score in the last eight and half minutes of the game.
Brian Cook and Dee Brown typically get all the attention directed toward Illinois, but Powell has been an integral part of the team’s recent success.
“Hopefully I’m going to continue to play with a chip on my shoulder,” Powell said.
Powell’s move from a role player to a leader has been a tough but necessary component of the team’s success. While a few weeks ago people were asking him if he could continue to play so well, now it is taken as a given in Champaign that Powell will be there when needed.
The great Houdini: In the first half of Saturday’s game, Michigan freshman Lester Abram was perfect. He hit all five of his field goal attempts, including a 3-point shot from the top of the key, and made all five of his free throw tries. His ability to hit the outside shot and drive to the hole created matchup problems for Illinois.
After Abram’s hot start Self tried to matchup forward James Augustine to quiet the 6-foot-6 swingman. But Abram easily blew past Augustine for a layup.
After the half, Abram was all but nonexistent. He attempted two shots in the entire second half and missed both, including an open three to tie the game with less than a minute to go. He was also unable to get to the free throw line like he had in the first half.
Part of the problem was that Cook took up the duties of guarding Abram. The taller Cook was more agile than Augustine and could stay with Abram easier. Abram also picked up a few whistles in the second half, which he said hampered his ability to stay aggressive.
“The first half I wasn’t in foul trouble, the second half I was,” Abram said. “That is about it.”