Second-half struggles continue as Illinois basketball falls at home to Michigan


Illinois’ Michael Finke fights for possession with Michigan’s Duncan Robinson and Mark Donnal during the Illini’s 78-68 loss to the Wolverines at State Farm Center on Wednesday.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

At this point, we know better than to have much faith in an Illini lead at halftime holding up.

Illinois led Michigan 37-34 at the break and was playing well in the teams’ Big Ten opener Wednesday afternoon at State Farm Center. But as we’ve seen so often with this year’s Illini, any lead or positive play in the second half evaporated before many fans had a chance to settle back into their seats.

Michigan (11-3, 1-0) went on a 9-2 run out of halftime and didn’t look back on its way to a 78-68 win, dropping Illinois to 8-6 on the season and 0-1 in conference play.

The Wolverines were sluggish in the first half, turning the ball over 10 times and allowing the Illini to shoot 50 percent from the field. When the home team closed out the half with a Jalen Coleman-Lands 3-pointer and an ensuing defensive stop, the State Farm Center crowd grew as loud as it’s been all season. It was a different story in the second.

Michigan exposed the Illini’s defensive weaknesses repeatedly and found its 3-point stroke as the game went on. The Wolverines whipped the ball around the perimeter for open threes (they made 10 of 24 on the afternoon) and often made the extra pass for easy layups.

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“I thought we were really poor,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “I thought they beat us in every area of the game in the second half. I didn’t like our effort.”

Sophomore forward Mark Donnal was the main beneficiary of Illinois’ depleted frontcourt, barely breaking a sweat on his way to a career-high 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting.

Donnal, who entered Wednesday’s game averaging 3.9 points with a career-high of 13, was around the rim all afternoon. He took advantage of Illinois’ defensive switches on the perimeter and broke free underneath for layup after layup as the Illini looked on helplessly.

Donnal played well and Michigan’s deadly 3-point shooters helped get him open looks, but make no mistake: The Wolverines are the definition of a perimeter-oriented team and are not strong in the post. If Illinois allows Michigan’s backup big to go off for 26 and nine boards, they’ll have serious trouble with the rest of the Big Ten. I don’t even want to think about what Purdue’s trio of 7-footers will do against them Jan. 10.

Michigan senior Caris LeVert and Illinois junior Kendrick Nunn had similar games offensively, going off for 22 and 23 points, respectively, on 9-of-16 shooting. The difference was LeVert’s 10 assists, as he showed off his NBA-ready skills as a dual-threat weapon.

Malcolm Hill, the other half of Illinois’ two-headed scoring threat, had a much quieter game. Hill put up 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting, well under his average of more than 18 points per game. Groce expressed disappointment in his players’ leadership and intensity after the game, saying it’s up to him and his captains — including Hill and injured point guard Tracy Abrams — to fix it.

“We keep letting our foot off of people in the second half, (and) that’s going to be something that catches up to us like it did today,” Illini point guard Jaylon Tate said after the game.

It’s already caught up to them several times already this season, not counting a few near-losses to far inferior opponents. The Illini surrendered a nine-point second-half lead in their loss to Chattanooga, and Wednesday’s game played out almost identically to the State Farm Center opener against Notre Dame.

John Groce is now 1-7 against Michigan in his three-plus years at Illinois. With no timetable for Leron Black’s and Mike Thorne Jr.’s returns from their meniscus injuries and point guard Khalid Lewis recovering from a case of the mumps, at this point the head coach can only try to solve his team’s troubles with who’s available.

“We’ve got to learn from it,” Groce said of the loss. “And we’ve got to learn quickly.”

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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