Wolverines (7-7) fall to .500 after loss to No. 25 Illinois, 68-53

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Champaign, Ill. — For 33 minutes, the undermanned and undersized Wolverines put up a fight.

They mucked up the game. They made hustle plays. They crashed the offensive glass and generated steals. They brought energy and effort against one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten.

But they couldn’t sustain it as No. 25 Illinois was too much down the stretch and used a late surge to send Michigan to its third straight loss, 68-53, Friday at State Farm Center.

Illinois' Kofi Cockburn (21) and Michigan's Moussa Diabate vie for a rebound during the first half.

“Obviously, we didn't get the job done, but I'm so proud of these guys,” grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “They fought to the end, every single one of them from top to bottom. That's what we want from this group."

Jones finished with 17 points for Michigan (7-7, 1-3 Big Ten), which was outscored 23-9 over the final 6:35, shot 36.7% from the field (22-for-60) and had another dreadful night from 3-point range (1-for-10).

BOX SCORE: Illinois 68, Michigan 53

Despite playing without sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr., the Wolverines hung tough with the Fighting Illini much of the way. After Illinois took an eight-point lead on a three-point play by Kofi Cockburn, Michigan used a second-chance layup by freshman forward Moussa Diabate and a layup by freshman forward Caleb Houstan to make it 32-28 with 16:56 left in the second half.

Then after Cockburn muscled his way to another close-range basket to open a 10-point lead, freshman guard Frankie Collins and fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks responded with back-to-back layups to trim it to 39-33 at the 13:30 mark.

As Illinois missed a handful of 3-point chances to extend the lead back to double digits, Michigan kept pushing and applying pressure. Sophomore wing Jace Howard capped a string of six straight points with two free throws to make it a two-point game. Freshman guard Kobe Bufkin scored on a floater to make it 45-44 with 7:27 remaining.

But that’s as close as it would get. Illinois responded with a thunderous dunk from Cockburn and a 7-0 run that was aided by a couple of turnovers to pull ahead, 52-44.

Trent Frazier was the difference and turned it on late. He followed with two driving layups and a 3-pointer to put Illinois up 59-48 with 3:23 to go. From there, the lead never dipped below 10 as Illinois sealed it at the line and handed Michigan its fourth loss in five games.

Cockburn finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, Frazier scored 18 — 13 coming in the final six minutes — and Alfonso Plummer added 15 points for Illinois (13-3, 6-0). The Fighting Illini made half of their six 3-pointers during the late run and made more free throws (18) than Michigan attempted (14) en route to their sixth straight win.

Michigan's Eli Brooks (55) stumbles as Illinois' Jacob Grandison defends during the first half.

“Rock fight. Whatever you want to call it, it was all that,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “They played harder than we did tonight, which doesn't have me very excited and doesn't happen very often.

“We'll take the win. It was a night that wasn't pretty. It was two teams that played hard in an ugly game.”

The Wolverines were without their leading scorer in Dickinson and a key reserve in Johns, who both made the trip and were on the bench but were unavailable. According to coach Juwan Howard, Dickinson and Johns had cleared protocols after testing positive for COVID, but he wasn't comfortable playing them since neither had practiced leading up to the game.

As a result, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II made his first career start. Williams, who hasn’t played since Dec. 30 due to COVID protocols, finished with two points and two rebounds in 31 minutes.

In addition to Dickinson and Johns, sophomore guard Zeb Jackson also didn’t travel for a second straight game for personal reasons.

More: Lineup change possible for reeling Wolverines: 'Every solution is being pursued'

“Sometimes when you only have eight or seven guys, you end up playing your best game because guys are so dialed in knowing that we’ve got to do it for each other,” Howard said.

“I’m always in the trenches with this group. I’m so damn proud of how they approached these unfortunate circumstances...but then also coming out with passion and fight.”

Despite being down two key frontcourt pieces, Diabate drew the assignment against Cockburn and didn’t shy away from the challenge. While Cockburn used his size and strength to muscle his way to a pair of easy layups early on, Diabate went right back at him as the Wolverines attacked the basket and the glass.

Even after Diabate picked up two quick fouls and headed to the bench with 15:02 left in the first half, Michigan continued to hang tough. The Wolverines got some steals and deployed some small lineups, with walk-on forward Jaron Faulds and Jace Howard each guarding Cockburn as a defensive battle ensued.

Both teams grinded out possessions and refused to let the other get into an offensive rhythm, with Michigan missing 10 of 11 shots over a five-minute stretch and Illinois misfiring on seven of eight attempts  many from beyond the arc  over a six-minute span. Over the first 12 minutes, the lead never was more than four.

But as fouls began to mount for the Wolverines, the Fighting Illini started to create some separation. They used a 7-0 spurt that featured a 3-pointer from Plummer  snapping a 0-for-6 start from deep for Illinois  to grab a 22-13 lead at the 5:33 mark.

Michigan's Frankie Collins (10) defends as Illinois' Trent Frazier advances the ball during the second half.

Jones rattled off a personal 9-2 run to stem the tide and keep the Wolverines in it. He capped a stretch of six straight points with a coast-to-coast layup. Then after Jace Howard dove on the court to come away with an offensive rebound, Jones buried Michigan's lone 3-pointer to cut the deficit to two before the Illini took a 26-22 lead into the break.

“People probably didn't expect us to come out and compete,” said Juwan Howard, who fell to 0-4 against Illinois.

“Moussa was in foul trouble in the first half. Jaron Faulds hadn't practiced and he's down with COVID and came in and competing and giving everything he can. Then Jace is out there battling and (Williams) is in foul trouble. I started thinking we don't have many guys left.

"Sometimes you deal with adversity, but you figure it out. You can learn from this and I think we learned a lot about who we are.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins