Mar. 3—ANN ARBOR — Michigan had its sights set on clinching a Big Ten regular-season title and getting fitted for a crown.
Illinois had other plans.
The No. 2 Wolverines had the celebration put on hold as they were bottled up from start to finish by the No. 4 Fighting Illini and turned in their worst offensive outing of the season in a 76-53 beatdown Tuesday night at Crisler Center.
“They played with great activity from the jump,” said senior forward Isaiah Livers, who was held to seven points on 2-for-7 shooting. “They hit us first. We weren’t prepared.
“They had the momentum. It felt like they were on a run the whole game. We’ve got to counter, and we didn’t do a great job of countering off their adjustments.”
Senior guard Eli Brooks was the lone Wolverine to score in double figures and finished with 11 points for Michigan (18-2, 13-2 Big Ten), which lost for the first time at home this season and saw its seven-game win streak come to an end.
The Wolverines shot 34.7% from the field (17-for-49), made two 3-pointers and finished with four assists — all season-low marks — as they trailed by double digits over the final 17 minutes and by as much as 28 points. The 53 points were also Michigan’s fewest since it scored 43 in a Dec. 3, 2019 loss at Louisville.
The battle between Big Ten’s top two teams lost a little luster with Illinois star guard and leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu sidelined for the third straight game with a facial injury.
Yet, the Illini dominated without him. Trent Frazier had 22 points, Andre Curbelo added 17 points and Kofi Cockburn had 12 points and seven rebounds for Illinois (19-6, 15-4), which outrebounded Michigan 42-26 and finished with a 22-5 advantage in second-chance points to stay alive in the Big Ten race.
“I’m not going to make any excuses, but we can’t get complacent,” said Livers, who hobbled off the court early in the second half but returned. “They’re a good team with or without Ayo. We prepared like Ayo was playing. They outplayed us. Credit to them. We didn’t bring it tonight.”
After a nightmarish first half resulted in an 11-point halftime deficit, things didn’t get any better in the second half. Michigan had no answers on e ither end of the floor and failed to match Illinois’ effort.
And it didn’t take long for the game to go off the rails, particularly when freshman center Hunter Dickinson picked up his third foul shortly out of the break. With Dickinson on the bench, Illinois took advantage and rattled off an 18-5 run over a five-minute stretch.
During the spurt, the Illini crashed the offensive glass and cashed in on four second-chance opportunities, the last on 3-pointer from Frazier. By the time Dickinson checked back in at the 12:18 mark, the deficit grew to 57-36 and the Illini were running the Wolverines out of their own building.
The deficit swelled to 64-36 with 9:42 remaining when Frazier capped a 9-0 spurt with another 3-pointer. From there, the Wolverines trailed by at least 24 points until both teams emptied their benches in the final minutes.
“The type of performance we gave tonight was not acceptable at all,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “There were many possessions where we didn’t do our job and we didn’t compete at the level that we’re capable of.”
Michigan couldn’t have asked for a better start on defense. The Wolverines held the Illini to eight points on 3-for-15 shooting and three turnovers over the first seven-plus minutes.
The problem for Michigan, though, was on the other end. The Wolverines were out of sorts and almost unrecognizable on offense. They struggled to move the ball, were left dribbling in one-on-one situations and didn’t get anything easy as they were forced into a bunch of bad looks by the Illini.
“We were playing back on our heels,” Livers said. “They forced some un-Michigan-like shots out of us. We took the bait and we never got back on track. We never found any momentum or flow.”
Added Howard: “They did great defensively by being physical, (getting) into us, not allowing us to get to our spots. We did a poor job of rushing and allowing their physicality to speed us up.”
Illinois was the first team to find its footing when it received a spark from Curbelo, who ignited an 11-2 run. He drew defenders and either finished at the rim or put his teammates in position to grab offensive rebounds, which allowed the Illini pull ahead, 19-12, at the 7:16 mark.
Meanwhile, the misses and stagnant possessions continued to pile up for the Wolverines as the Illini stifled their ball-screen offense. After Michigan managed to cut it to 21-18 on a layup from fifth-year senior center Austin Davis, Illinois closed the half on an 8-2 run to take a 33-22 lead into the break.
A Big Ten spokesperson confirmed to The News that the regular-season championship will be determined by winning percentage due to unbalanced schedules. That means Michigan needs just one win in its final two games this week against Michigan State to secure its first conference crown since 2013-14 and ensure a first-place finish over Illinois.
The next opportunity comes Thursday in the home finale, leaving the Wolverines a short amount of time to put Tuesday’s drubbing in the rearview mirror.
“It’s definitely going to sting a little bit,” Davis said. “You try to learn from a win or a loss. Obviously from a game like this we have a lot more to learn from. We’re going to stay together, stay connected, learn those lessons and focus up on our next opponent.”