Illinois gives another game away in loss to Michigan

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Illinois gives another game away in loss to Michigan

By now, Illinois fans should be conditioned to expect the worst. 

Why would any Illini basketball fan feel comfortable up 13 in the second half against Michigan? Why should they?

For the fourth time this season, this Illinois team has folded like a lawn chair down the stretch, losing 73-65 in overtime to the Wolverines on Tuesday afternoon. All four of its losses have resulted from poor second half play, and you can add Michigan to the list of teams (Miami, Villanova, Oregon) that have taken advantage of Illinois tightening up down the stretch. 

Before this game, I wrote that head coach John Groce’s squad needed to kick Michigan while it was down. They needed to take advantage of a Wolverines team that was struggling in nearly every aspect of the game, one that had lost four of five games, including three of its last four at home.

For the first 30 minutes of this game, the Illini did a decent job of doing just that. Led by Jaylon Tate and Leron Black, the bench stepped up and ignited an Illinois offense that suffered through an unusually quiet game from Rayvonte Rice. Malcolm Hill had a strong performance as well with 19 points, but his efforts weren’t enough to carry an Illini squad to the finish line after it was in control for most of the game.

For God’s sake, the main reason people went to this game was the introduction of new Wolverine football coach Jim Harbaugh. Michigan fans didn’t even seem to care that their basketball team was playing, as long as Harbaugh showed up to deliver a speech at halftime. Their basketball team was background noise, an afterthought. 

But guess who got the last laugh? You guessed it. Michigan beat Illinois again, for the eighth time in a row and for the fifth time in five tries since Groce took over. John Beilein owns the Illini. 

While Michigan’s Caris LeVert was effective with 19 points, it was the play of two freshmen, Ricky Doyle and Aubrey Dawkins, that sunk the Illini. Dawkins went off, scoring 20 points on 6-of-7 3-point shooting after entering the contest averaging 1.5 points per game. He scored 17 in the second half.

And it was Doyle capitalizing off repeated pick and rolls that were apparently too complex for the Illini defense in the second half — he scored several easy buckets when Dawkins wasn’t raining threes.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this Illini season is trying to figure out what’s wrong with this team. Its shooting percentages from this game don’t look terrible (near 40 percent from the field and from three) but the execution just wasn’t there when it mattered.

Entering this season, not many people would have classified Illinois losing in overtime to Michigan in Ann Arbor as a bad loss. But under the circumstances, this defeat was a crippling one for Groce’s squad.

When you’re controlling a game on the road in the Big Ten in the second half, you simply can’t afford to give it away. These games are too valuable, especially with an angry Ohio State team (coming off a loss to Iowa) waiting for Illinois on Saturday. After that? No. 12 Maryland pays a visit to State Farm Center. A bad start to Big Ten play for Illinois is looking more and more likely. 

Fans are frustrated, and I imagine the players and coaches are as well. There’s still plenty of basketball left to be played this year, but Groce needs to figure out a way to get results out of his team in conference play, and fast.

If Groce doesn’t steady the ship, his 16-22 Big Ten record in three seasons will get even uglier. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.