ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Everyone knows that Michigan can be spectacular with the ball.
Sunday, they showed how good they can be on the other end of the floor.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines put on a defensive clinic in the second half, holding Illinois to 27 points and pulling away for a 71-58 victory.
“We missed some things in the first half, but our defense was extremely good in the second half,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We started getting to the 50-50 balls and we kept them off the glass. It was good to see.”
The Wolverines had started the game looking like a team that hadn’t played in a week. They trailed 13-5 and were sloppy on both offense and defense. They were within 31-28 at the half, but the Illini had eight offensive rebounds and Brandon Paul already had 10 points.
That all changed in the final 20 minutes. Illinois didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the second half and Paul couldn’t even get off a shot.
“We know he’s the kind of guy who can go for 30 points on you, so we knew we had to step it up against him,” said Trey Burke. “We just got back to working hard and having fun, like we did early in the season.”
Illinois didn’t help, handing Michigan several easy fast-break opportunities.
“We came out and made a bunch of boneheaded turnovers,” Illinois guard D.J. Richardson said. “That’s not a good idea against one of the best transition offenses in the country.”
Richardson was right, especially with Burke playing point guard. Burke shredded the Illinois defense with top-speed baskets and passes, finishing with 26 points, eight assists and just one turnover.
“He’s never hogging the ball — his game is all about playing the right way,” Beilein said. “His handle is so sure, even in crowds, that he never has to try to do too much.”
Along the way, Burke became the seventh Michigan sophomore to reach 1,000 career points, joining Phil Hubbard, Mike McGee, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Louis Bullock and Manny Harris.
Four other players — Bill Buntin, Cazzie Russell, Rudy Tomjanovich and Henry Wilmore — reached the mark as juniors when freshmen were not eligible to play varsity basketball.
“There have been some pretty good basketball players that have come through this school, so that number says a lot,” Beilein said. “He’s been playing with Tim Hardaway Jr., so it isn’t like he’s been a one-man band out there.”
Burke, as you would expect, wanted to talk about his teammates more than any individual achievements.
“It is great to play on this team, because you have so many guys contributing,” he said. “No matter what situation we’re in, I’ve always got a lot of options when I’ve got the ball. That’s what makes this work.”
The biggest thing for Michigan was getting back to the level of play that saw them enter February with a 20-1 record. Since then, they had lost three times, beaten Ohio State in overtime and looked lethargic against Penn State, winless in conference play.
The Illini came into Sunday’s game on a five-game winning streak, including an upset of Indiana, but the Wolverines made beating them look easy in the second half.
“Today was the first step in getting our confidence back and getting our swagger back,” Jordan Morgan said. “We needed to remember the hard work we had shown in the early part of the season. I think we forgot about that in that tough stretch we just had.”
Morgan played a big role, even though he didn’t take a shot in his 17 minutes. He’s still recovering from an ankle injury, but had six rebounds, three on the offensive end.
“That showed a lot of toughness, especially on that ankle,” Beilein said. “He was working extremely hard on the defensive end, and that adds a lot to what we can do.”
In the end, Michigan learned again how much they enjoy playing the type of basketball where tough defense leads to fast-break dunks, layups and open 3-point shots — the way they played in November, December and January.
“In practice this week, coach showed us clips from early in the season, before all the crazy hype started,” Burke said. “He wanted to remind us how much fun we were having.
“We’re getting back on that track — we showed that in the second half.”
The big tests, though, will come on the next two Sundays, when the Wolverines play host to Michigan State and Indiana. They will need to win both games to keep alive any chances at a share of the regular-season Big Ten title.