'Not satisfied': Scrappy Michigan ties school mark with 16-0 start
Champaign, Ill. — And then there were three.
No. 2 Michigan continued its winning ways and joined an exclusive club in the process.
With a scrappy 79-69 victory over Illinois on Thursday at State Farm Center, the 2018-19 Wolverines tied the program record for best start to a season with 16 consecutive wins, a mark only reached by the 1985-86 and 2012-13 teams.
Michigan (16-0, 5-0 Big Ten) will have a shot to set the record at home at 7:30 p.m. Sunday against Northwestern.
"We're happy we have that achievement, that we accomplished that achievement. But at the same time, we want it to keep going," said junior guard Zavier Simpson, who finished with a team-high 16 points and eight assists to lead a balanced attack.
"We have Northwestern on Sunday and we just want to keep playing our game, stay locked in, stay focused and just be ready for the next game. We're happy, but we're not satisfied."
Michigan's entire starting lineup finished in double figures, with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis tallying 15 points and eight rebounds, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews scoring 14, junior center Jon Teske racking up 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks and sophomore guard Jordan Poole scoring 10.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who returned after sitting the past two games because of soreness from back spasms, added nine points off the bench for the Wolverines, which shot 18-for-22 from the free-throw line and finished with 14 turnovers after committing 11 in the first half.
BOX SCORE: Michigan 79, Illinois 69
"I feel very fortunate...knowing right now how good this league is, how good every home team is, how to win on the road is really difficult," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a tough, tough team and we knew it was going to be a grind-it-out game.
"We got to the foul line, we kept them off the foul line, we kept them off the backboard and despite those 11 turnovers in the first half, we were able to have a halftime lead. Second half we were a much better team."
Despite their poor record, the Illini (4-12, 0-5) put up a fight and rode a late first-half surge out of the break, pulling within four and five points in the first 6:30 of the second half.
But Michigan made a halftime adjustment by getting the ball in Simpson's hands as much as possible, which helped the Wolverines cut down on the turnovers and answer each run to keep the Illini at bay.
After Trent Frazier’s 3-pointer cut it to 41-37, the first response came via a 3-pointer and three-point play from Teske that pushed the lead to 49-39 at the 14:51 mark.
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Then after a 3-pointer from Illinois’ Aaron Jordan trimmed it to 49-44, Matthews capped a 6-0 spurt with a soaring dunk to make it 55-44 with 11:50 to go.
That's the closest Illinois could get as it never cut the deficit to less than seven over the final 10 minutes. And even when it did, it was short-lived as Simpson drained a 3-pointer — complete with Livers making a "shush" gesture at the scorers table — to push the lead comfortably back to double digits.
Matthews, Simpson and Brazdeikis helped Michigan remain one of the two unbeaten teams left standing in the country — along with Virginia — by combining for two dunks and seven free throws in the final 1:14 to seal it.
Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu scored 21 — with 19 points coming in the first half — Giorgi Bezhanishvili added 15 and Frazier had 13 for Illinois, which shot 47.5 percent (29-for-61) from the field but still trailed from start to finish.
"It's a good basketball team when you got just about everybody in double figures and another guy with nine," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "So much about what they do, I like and I enjoy watching. Their balance is very good.
"We turned them over 11 times in the first half and they turn it over eight or nine times a game. That's usually good enough to win. Their percentages were low and we had some inconsistencies on the offensive end. You start down (12-4) against the second-ranked team in the country, you're battling uphill and it makes it difficult."
For the second straight game, Michigan got it rolling early by ripping off the first eight points and forcing Illinois to call a timeout just 2:10 into the game.
Livers wasted little time making his presence known and proving why the Wolverines missed him. He recorded a three-point play and skied for an offensive rebound and putback during an 8-2 spurt that put Michigan up 20-10 at 12:13 mark.
After Illinois used a 7-0 run to pull within three, Poole scored seven straight to make it 36-25. His last two points came on free throws at the 3:40 mark following a technical foul on Underwood, but Illinois’ pressure defense continued to create turnovers and helped the Illini stay close.
Michigan — which averaged 9.2 turnovers entering the game — coughed the ball up 11 times in the first half, including its final two possessions that led to back-to-back 3-pointers by Dosunmu to cut the deficit to 39-34 at the break.
"We had 16 (wins to start a season) before, one of my teams, so that's how much I'm going to remember this," Beilein said. "If somebody says to me right now, 'Who did your 16th win come against last time?' I would say, 'I have no idea.'
"I do remember Ohio State broke it (in 2012-13). I do remember the losses. I don't remember wins like that."
Sunday might be an exception.