Illinois men’s basketball takes down Michigan in double overtime to join second place in Big Ten

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

Fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer and freshman forward Ty Rodgers jump for a rebound during the game against Michigan on Friday. (Michael Chew)

In a battle for second place in the Big Ten, Illinois successfully defended State Farm Center, fending off Michigan in double overtime by a score of 91-87. With this win, Illinois moves into joint-second place in the league, along with five other teams.

Despite missing the majority of the week of practice due to a caffeine-induced illness, fifth-year senior forward Matthew Mayer started Thursday night. Freshman guard Jayden Epps suffered a severe head injury in practice and missed out against the Wolverines, so sophomore guard RJ Melendez was given the nod on the night. Joining that pair was the trio of senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., junior forward Coleman Hawkins and redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja.

From the first play of the game, all momentum was in Michigan’s favor. Former All-American center Hunter Dickinson hit a three to kick the game off, before Kobe Bufkin hit another. Dainja did his best to keep scoring close, but early on, it was all in the Wolverines’ favor.

A 10-4 start quickly transformed into just a two-point deficit for the Illini at 15-13. With 12:06 remaining in the first, Dainja and Hawkins already forced three turnovers from Dickinson, keeping him quiet after his first three and turning those turnovers into points. Wolverine Will Tschetter got his second foul after a drive from Shannon during this stretch and sat for the majority of the half as a result.

Illinois gained the lead for the first time on the night, 21-20 at 9:14 after a made three from Mayer. On the play, he was deemed to have flopped, giving the lead right back to Michigan following a made free throw and layup. Some good defensive plays on both ends of the court led to a relatively stagnant few minutes, leaving Michigan still up 27-25 with just 3:48 left in the half.

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Illinois came out of the timeout at 3:48 and immediately converted two possessions into points. Dainja’s post move gave him a free layup, and a steal from freshman guard Sencire Harris ended in a dunk that got State Farm Center on its feet for the first time of the night as he rose above Dickinson.

A couple of refereeing decisions against Harris with under 10 seconds to go brought him to two fouls on the night, but the Wolverines were unable to convert, giving Illinois a 33-31 lead at the half. On senior night, it was Mayer who led the way in points at the half with nine, but it was clean play and tough defense that set Illinois apart. The Illini had just three turnovers at the half, to the Wolverines’ eight.

Immediately out of the break, the Illini attacked the basket with an intensity unseen in the first half. Shannon drove to the rim and attempted a monstrous dunk that sent him to the line for two, while Tschetter picked up his third foul. Just two plays later, Melendez attacked the rim after a big defensive stop and put down the Illini’s second dunk over Dickinson on the night.

Two minutes later, Hawkins connected on two dunks, contributing to Illinois’ biggest lead of the night. Big defensive stops and some fierce play at the rim granted the Illini a 52-43 lead with 12:15 to go.

Foul trouble derailed Illinois’ second half performance. Melendez and freshman forward Ty Rodgers committed back-to-back fouls, giving Michigan two big threes that stunted all momentum. With 7:33 left, the Wolverines led 57-56 — their first lead of the half.

As the game began to wind down, Illinois regained its lead after some sloppy turnovers from Michigan. Melendez’s electric second half was capped off by a made three to put Illinois up 68-63 at the final media timeout. With 2:58 left to play, the Wolverines were still within touching distance of the Illini.

This closeness lasted the rest of the game, adding up for a nail-biting finish.

Despite Shannon scoring from the line to make it a seven-point gap, Dickinson returned the favor at the other end twice over, making Michigan’s deficit just three with a minute to go. Jett Howard then scored a huge three to tie the game up at 70 with 48 seconds to go. After a failed set play from Juwan Howard’s crew, regulation ended all square, leading to State Farm Center’s first overtime of the season.

Dickinson took over in overtime. He bully-balled his way past Hawkins multiple times, despite Hawkins’ appeals to the referee team on certain occasions. He ended the first overtime period with six points, but Shannon’s late trips to the line ended up giving Illinois a route back level. Overtime one ended 81-81, giving State Farm Center five more minutes of action.

In the second overtime period, it was Mayer’s turn to take over. After being honored earlier in the day, the fifth-year hit a huge three followed by a pair of tricky layups to put the Illini ahead 88-83 with three minutes to play. His best shooting stretch of the night was enough to push Illinois onto victory, 91-87.

Illinois’ final game of the regular season is Sunday in West Lafayette, Indiana, as Brad Underwood’s unit prepares to take on regular season winner No. 5 Purdue.



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