Wolverines fend off Illinois, 64-63, in Big Ten tournament opener
Michigan’s quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is alive.
The Wolverines collapsed against an Illinois zone Friday afternoon, only to have Illini coach John Groce switch back to man defense for the last two possessions.
On the first one, Nik Stauskas got to the rim and was fouled. He split the free throws, cutting Michigan’s deficit to one in the final minute.
Jordan Morgan, playing with four fouls, made a key defensive play, trapping a high ball-screen against the sideline as the shot clock expired, giving the Wolverines the basketball with 19.1 seconds left.
Groce stayed with the man defense, and Stauskas took advantage again, getting inside and finding Morgan for a layup to make it 64-63.
"I wasn’t expecting to be the one taking the last shot," the senior captain said during a postgame interview on WWJ Newsradio 950. "Nik told me coming out of the timeout that he was shooting it either way, but once he got me the ball, I just wanted to get it up over the rim."
Stauskas said he couldn’t resist when he saw the defense he was rushing at him.
"I went up to shoot, and I saw J-Mo rolling open to the basket," he said. "I got it to him, and he laid it in."
Illinois had a chance to win at the buzzer, but Michigan coach John Beilein had a last trick up his sleeve. He came out of the final Illini timeout in a zone, then called time out himself.
Groce changed his play, but when the teams came back on the floor, Beilein had switched the Wolverines back to man defense.
"We wanted to show them one thing and then do something else," Beilein said during his postgame radio inteview. "You just want to give them a little doubt in what you are going to do."
Illinois got a good look, but junior guard Tracy Abrams came up short on a floater in the lane as time expired.
That makes Michigan the first team into Saturday’s semifinals, where they will play the winner of the Ohio State-Nebraska game, and keeps them in the conversation for a top seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced on Sunday.
Both Michigan and Wisconsin would be considered strong possibilities for a No. 1 with a tournament win.
"That’s why this time of the year is great," Beilein said. "That was a team that we beat 30 points a couple weeks ago, and they had us in big trouble.
"When you get to the postseason, there’s not going to be an easy game. Illinois came out, played some great zone defense and took us right out of our offensive tempo."
Going forward, Michigan has to be concerned with the way it struggled against that Illini zone down the stretch. They led by 13 points in the second half, but suddenly couldn’t hit anything.
They were getting open looks from outside on almost every possession, something that would normally be an ideal situation, but even Stauskas couldn’t get his 3-pointer to fall.
"He was getting great shots against the zone — all of our guys were," Beilein said. "But once you start to miss a bunch of them, your confidence starts to drop. That’s why it got so effective. It had us doubting our own shots."
And why it’s stunning that Groce chose to go back to man defense in the last minute of the game.
Two possessions later, Michigan had the three points they needed to end the Illini’s season and keep its shot alive at the Big Ten double — winning both the regular-season and tournament championships.
The Wolverines have never done that, but are now just two victories away.