Morgan’s lay-in likely means NIT for Illinois basketball


Illinois’ head coach John Groce reacts to an Illinois turnover during the quarter-final game of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament against Michigan at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, on Friday, Mar. 14, 2014 The Illini lost 64-63.

INDIANAPOLIS — Breaking the huddle after a timeout, Nik Stauskas told Jordan Morgan he was shooting the ball regardless of what he saw on the court. With Michigan down a point against Illinois and 19.1 seconds remaining, Wolverines head coach John Beilein drew up a play to get Stauskas the ball with some action. 

Illinois had been flipping between man-to-man and zone throughout the second half and Beilein didn’t know what to expect. He drew up something that could work against either and told Stauskas to read the floor and take what Illinois gave him. 

Michigan inbounded the ball and point guard Spike Albrecht took it up the court. Illinois was playing man-to-man with Kendrick Nunn guarding Stauskas on the block.

Albrecht passed it to Stauskas coming off a screen on the left wing. Nunn and Abrams switched on the screen. Stauskas dribbled twice to his right past a ball screen set by Morgan.   

A foot or two right of the top of the key, Stauskas rose into the air just beyond the 3-point line.  

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Battling around Morgan’s screen, Tracy Abrams thought Stauskas was going to shoot. Nnanna Egwu, helping off of Morgan, thought he was going to shoot. Morgan, rolling to the basket, thought he was going to shoot. Everyone in Bankers Life Fieldhouse thought Nik Stauskas was going to shoot. 

Stauskas didn’t shoot.

Morgan rolled through the lane and caught a bullet of a pass from the airborne Stauskas with about 10 seconds remaining. He went up with his right hand and laid the ball into the basket over a contesting Rayvonte Rice.

Rice grazed the ball with his fingertips, but it wasn’t enough to deflect it. Michigan took a one-point lead of its own.

Nine seconds later, Abrams’ floater came inches short of winning the game and Michigan escaped with a victory, advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. 

“I came off a high ball screen looking to be aggressive,” Stauskas said after the game. “The guy guarding me (Abrams) was chasing, the big guy (Egwu) came up to help and I gave (Morgan) the ball.” 

“I wasn’t necessarily ready for the pass,” Morgan said.

Michigan often does a drill in practice where the big guys have to catch passes through traffic with their heads turned and lay the ball in or dunk it. Beilein said Morgan has done that drill “at least 2,000 times in 5 years.”

He had no trouble catching this one and finishing the play.

The win kept Michigan alive in the Big Ten Tournament and in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But on the flip side, it dashed whatever slim hopes Illinois had for making the 68-team field.

Illinois is likely heading for the NIT.

“I’m not sure what tournament we’re going to be in, but we’re going to be prepared and be ready,” Abrams said. 

If the NIT is Illinois’ destination, it will not be able to host any games because of the renovations State Farm Center is undergoing. Even so, the Illini finish up the Big Ten Tournament playing the best they have all season. They are leaps and bounds better than they were during the eight-game losing streak early in conference play.

“We’re improved, we’re playing really good basketball,” head coach John Groce said. “We’ll wait to what are fate is Sunday and what cards we’re dealt.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.