CHICAGO — The spark wouldn’t stay lit for the Illini and their Big Ten tournament run ended as quickly as it began Thursday. Their NCAA tournament hopes likely died along with it.
Illinois was eliminated in the second round of the conference tournament, falling to Michigan 73-55 at the United Center in what was both teams’ first game of the tournament.
The Wolverines jumped out to a 17-point lead at halftime and never looked back.
‘I didn’t see that one coming at all,” Groce said. “That one blindsided me. We expected to play well today and just didn’t.”
The Illini starters shot 28.5 percent from the field and were 1-for-13 from 3-point range.
It was the second straight year the Wolverines knocked Illinois out of the conference tournament. Michigan started out the game with a 14-2 run while the Illini shot 1-for-9 from the field.
The Illini briefly matched the Wolverines with a 13-0 run to take their only lead of the game. But Illinois couldn’t hold Michigan’s offense at bay.
The Wolverines’ offense exploded, ending the half on a 23-4 run to take a 40-23 lead into the locker room.
Michigan shot 49.2 percent from the field and 46.7 from behind the arc. Four Michigan starters finished in double figures.
Sophomore Malcolm Hill led Illinois with 13 points and shot 3-for-12 from the field.
“I don’t think I played very well,” Hill said. “As a team we could’ve done better.”
The sophomore’s emphatic, botched dunk while the Illini were down by 19 in the second half pretty much summed things up. Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins replied with a successful jam of his own on the other side of the court.
Dawkins finished the game with 18 points, shooting 8-for-12. The guard had a breakout performance in Michigan’s win over Illinois in late December, scoring 20 points.
The early exit from the conference tournament likely means the end for Illinois’ NCAA tournament hopes, having already been on the wrong side of the bubble coming into Thursday’s game.
“It’s hard to take,” senior center Nnanna Egwu said. “You expect to play more than one game in the Big Ten tournament and it’s over right now.”
With Illinois’ State Farm Center renovations already underway, any NIT games Illinois might play all be played on the road.
An potential NIT trip was a disappointment in the Illini locker room, with players showing little enthusiasm about their season’s future following Thursday’s loss.
“I mean, I don’t like to say we’re about to play in the NIT,” Hill said. “But we just have to do our best in that, I guess.”