INDIANAPOLIS — At the time, Brandon Paul’s 3-pointer appeared to be a deathblow.

The Illinois guard’s shot put the Fighting Illini up, 51-39, with 8:34 left in the game. With Michigan’s offense struggling, the Wolverines were staring at a quarterfinal exit from the Big Ten Tournament and one of the most stressful days of their life on Selection Sunday.

In the blink of an eye, everything had changed.

Michigan (9-9 Big Ten, 20-11 overall) came back to defeat Illinois, 60-55, on Friday afternoon.

“It was looking grim,” junior guard Stu Douglass said. “But we knew what we needed to do. We’ve been in situations (with) our back against the wall. (We had) people telling us you got to win to get in, and all sorts of stuff like that. We just wanted to advance.”

The Wolverines took advantage of sloppy play by their opponent late in the game, as the Fighting Illini turned the ball over four times in the last eight minutes.

Sophomore point guard Darius Morris sparked a 12-0 run to tie the game at 51, driving to the basket more aggressively and forcing the defense to collapse. Later, freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 3-pointer with 1:44 remaining gave the Wolverines their first lead of the second half — one they never relinquished.

Illinois (9-9 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) was down only one point for most of the rest of the game. But the Illini suddenly couldn’t get quality looks offensively, and didn’t take advantage of the several good opportunities they did have.

“I thought our offense in the first half and early second half was as good as it’s looked all year,” Illinois forward Bill Cole said. “We just got tight and stopped doing the things that were working for us … we just couldn’t hit anything down the stretch.”

Junior guard Zack Novak’s two free throws with eight seconds left clinched the victory — and possibly a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The game very much resembled the two teams’ previous matchup. Though it was close early, the Fighting Illini seized momentum with a 17-4 run to go into halftime with a 34-23 lead.

Michigan is known for having big men with 3-point range, but Illinois turned the tables on the Wolverines in the frame. Instead of easily scoring in the post — as they did in the last game — Illini center Mike Tisdale and forward Bill Cole went outside for offense, and with much success.

The two combined to shoot 4-for-5 from deep for the half. And on defense, they and their teammates locked down the Michigan offense as the half went on.

“Got to give a lot of credit to Illinois,” Douglass said. “They really picked it up defensively, took a lot of our actions away. They used their length. They really fought hard. It was a different look, different feel from the first time that we played them.”

A key difference from the previous matchup, though, was Michigan’s shooting from long range. The Wolverines went just 2-for-18 in their last outing against the Fighting Illini, but were 11-for-24 on Friday.

“I don’t really have an explanation for (the improved shooting),” junior guard Zack Novak said. “We got wide-open shots there, too … But tonight I thought we just had guys just step up and make big shots … we needed to get some momentum going.”

Illinois, meanwhile, went cold when it mattered most late in the game. The Wolverines took advantage, completing the comeback they couldn’t pull off last month in Champaign.

Michigan appears to be in solid shape for the NCAA Tournament, but isn’t done in Indianapolis just yet. The Wolverines move on to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and will take on No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon at Conseco Field House.

“We’ll see Sunday,” junior guard Zack Novak said when asked whether his team had locked up a bid. “Right now, we’re trying to win the Big Ten Tournament, and not leave it to chance. I think we got a great opportunity tomorrow, playing the No. 1 team in the country.

“(That’s) a great resume builder.”

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