Champaign, Ill. — Earlier this week, Michigan coach John Beilein hinted at having some tricks up his sleeve.
Let's assume one of them was Mark Donnal.
The junior forward, who lost his starting spot early in nonconference play and has struggled mightily to gain his minutes back, had a career day in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, a 78-68 Michigan victory in which Donnal posted career highs in points (26) and rebounds (nine) at State Farm Center on Wednesday.
"I just told him before the game, 'You've had four hours (in practice) to prove you can play in this game, and you did,' and that's the mentality I want our guys to have," Beilein said. "He's a better player than he's played in practice, and he's a better player than he's played in games."
The big-man spot has been a sore spot for Michigan (11-3) most of the season, but not on Wednesday, as the Wolverines took advantage of the absence of Illini forwards Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black, both out with knee injuries.
Illinois (8-6) also was without Khalid Lewis, who has the mumps.
Ricky Doyle started for Michigan, and was quickly replaced by Mo Wagner, who was quickly replaced by Donnal — who simply took over, even draining a 3-pointer early in the second half, drawing cat calls of "Marky Mark" from the Michigan bench as he smiled during the trot back to play defense.
Donnal was on the scout team much of practice and played the role of Illinois forward Michael Finke so well, he played his way into a spotlight performance.
"It's just a great team win," Donnal said. "Any game that we can get a win, I don't care about my personal stats. I'm just happy to get a win."
Donnal finished 11-of-15 shooting. To put that in perspective, Donnal had never taken 11 shots in a game for Michigan, let alone made 11.
Caris LeVert, recruited heavily by Illinois coach John Groce before committing to Michigan, scored 22 points, to go with his 10 assists — several inside to Donnal for some point-blank looks — and five rebounds.
"Caris gave me a few assists, just easy baskets early in the game," Donnal said. "Kind of got rolling off that."
Donnal added three blocks, a career high, and two steals, matching a career high.
Derrick Walton Jr. had nine rebounds for Michigan, which won the rebounding battle, 38-27, against an undermanned and undersized Illinois team.
Fans were curious which Michigan team would emerge for the start of Big Ten play following four blowout victories against lesser nonconference foes, a stretch that immediately followed a troublesome drubbing at SMU.
It turned out, a darn tough Michigan team showed up.
Illinois led, 37-34, at the half, as the Wolverines struggled from 3-point range and turned the ball over 10 times. But Michigan locked things down after the break, and opened the second half on a 19-9 run, nine of those points from Donnal.
Beilein then took a risk, giving LeVert and Zak Irvin (eight points) a break at the same time, and the lead grew from seven to 11, thanks to some outstanding defense from Aubrey Dawkins. The Wolverines limited the Illini to 35.7-percent shooting in the second half.
Illinois still made it interesting late, as Big Ten teams rarely fold at home. After Walton rushed and missed a 3-pointer with an 11-point lead and 3:20 left, the Illini cut it to nine with 3:09 left and seven with 1:27 left, evoking memories of the last meeting, in February, when Michigan squandered a substantial lead. But then Walton made amends for the earlier miss with a banked 3-pointer to all but seal it, with Beilein yelling, "Derrick, that was a hell of a shot!"
"We deserve one of those every now and then," Beilein said. "We've had that happen the other way, as well."
Nobody was more deserving, apparently, than Donnal, who lost his starting spot, and a lot of his minutes — and even his status as a red-shirt sophomore. UM reclassified him as a junior before the season.
But he's been opening eyes in practice, and really made an impact over the holiday break.
Donnal's 28 minutes were a career high, nearly double any of his workloads this season. His previous high was 26, in his debut against Hillsdale last season.
This wasn't Hillsdale. This was the Big Ten. And nobody played bigger than Donnal.
"It's big. Everybody's gotta earn everything, and everybody that you see ever playing games earned that opportunity," Beilein said. "Now Mark is really understanding as a third-year guy, 'I gotta earn this playing time, and Coach is not changing.'
"We want him to be hungry, and he was really hungry today."
Kendrick Nunn led Illinois with 23 points; Jalen Coleman-Lands added 13 and Malcolm Hill 11.
Michigan returns to action Saturday against Penn State, at Crisler Center.