Ann Arbor — The game was there for the taking.
Michigan was able to string together defensive stops and held a two-point lead over No. 21 Illinois with under four minutes to play Saturday at Crisler Center.
Then everything crumbled. The Wolverines bricked their final five free throws and missed five of their final six shots before Ayo Dosunmu hit a contested jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining to hand Michigan a crushing 64-62 loss.
"It hurts,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You come in after a game like this and you see nothing but red eyes. You know that heads are down, there's been some crying involved in the locker room, and it hurts you as a coach. I feel like I let them down, and that's the worst feeling ever."
With the score tied at 62 and the final seconds ticking away, Illinois ran an isolation play for Dosunmu against Zavier Simpson.
While Dosunmu wasn’t able to shake Simpson with a quick fake, he was able to take advantage of his 5-inch height edge by elevating and shooting over Simpson on a jumper from the free-throw line.
“The one thing Ayo has at 6-(foot)-5 is the ability to get it over people, get it over smaller guards and we just chose to let him go,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
“We were fortunate they missed some free throws, gave us an opportunity and I’m running out of adjectives to talk about Ayo. That's what great players do. That last play was guarded as well as you could possibly guard it. It was a really good player making a really hard shot.”
Howard admitted after the game he expected Illinois to run "some type of wrinkle or high ball screen" with Dosunmu, not an isolation play. However, Howard agreed with Underwood that Simpson couldn't have contested the shot any better.
"It was well played, great defense by Zavier," Howard said. "If he makes a shot like that, it's on me. It's not on Zavier, it's on me."
The game-winner capped a stellar day for Dosunmu, whom Michigan had trouble staying in front of and struggled to keep out of the lane all game long.
He racked up a career-high 27 points to lead Illinois (15-5, 7-2 Big Ten), which extended its winning streak to six games and moved into sole possession of first place in the conference. Andre Feliz added 15 points and Trent Frazier scored 10.
"Ayo, he's been playing some good basketball these last few games,” Howard said. “He does a really good job of getting to his right hand and finishing over in traffic…They run some ball screens with him and he's very crafty at using the ball screen.
“Sometimes you have a great night and he had a great night.”
The same couldn’t be said for Michigan (11-8, 2-6), which shot 23.5 percent (4-for-17) from 3-point range and 57.1 percent (12-for-21) from the free-throw line.
The Wolverines saw the Isaiah Livers return to the starting lineup after missing the last six games, only to exit early in the second half after hurting himself again on a dunk attempt.
They also dropped their fourth straight game — and two straight at Crisler Center for the first time since the 2015-16 season — as they let the game slip away at the foul line.
Simpson missed a pair of free throws with 3:24 remaining that would’ve made it a four-point game. After David DeJulius hit a jumper to give Michigan a 62-60 lead with 2:25 to go, the Wolverines couldn’t add to it as Austin Davis missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Then with 1:17 to go, Franz Wagner, an 87-percent free-throw shooter, clanked both of his attempts to keep the door open for Illinois.
"I liked the way we fought throughout the whole game,” said Wagner, who finished with 12 points. “We just have to reward ourselves at the end with free throws.
"I'm not going to lie, it's really hard for me to stand right here because it's my two free throws (that cost us). It's really hard. That's how basketball works though. You've got to be ready for those type of moments.”
Illinois tied it at 62 on a pair of free throws from Frazier and got the ball back after Jon Teske missed a shot in the paint with 29 seconds remaining.
That set the stage for Dosunmu’s dagger, which put the finishing touches on another game where Michigan couldn’t close it out in the final minutes.
“It's kind of the story of the game. We tried everything. We had great effort. I don't think you can tell us that we didn't play hard today,” Wagner said. “It just didn't happen again. Free throws, a couple defensive lapses — that’s how you lose a game like that.”