'We weren't good enough': Michigan basketball rallies late, but falls to No. 15 Illinois
Ann Arbor — One step forward, one step back.
That’s been the theme of Michigan’s postseason push over the past few weeks, and the Wolverines couldn’t buck the trend on Sunday against No. 15 Illinois.
This time, a hot-shooting first half by Alfonso Plummer and a big second half by Kofi Cockburn was too much for Michigan to overcome as its late comeback bid fell short in a 93-85 loss at Crisler Center.
BOX SCORE: Illinois 93, Michigan 85
“We weren’t good enough,” Michigan interim coach Phil Martelli said. “We just weren’t good enough and trailed for 40 minutes. Defensively, we seemed to be chasing for a lot (of the game). Maybe the last eight minutes we stopped chasing, and we were able to dig our feet in and play.”
Grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones had 25 points and 10 assists, freshman forward Caleb Houstan scored 21 and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson had 13 points and 11 rebounds for Michigan (15-12, 9-8 Big Ten), which has lost five straight against Illinois.
Freshman forward Moussa Diabate added 12 points in his return from a one-game suspension for the Wolverines, which staged a furious rally and cut a 15-point second-half deficit down to two in the final two minutes before it fizzled out.
After Plummer buried his sixth made 3-pointer and Illinois took its largest lead, 74-59, with 9:32 to play, Michigan started to claw back. Diabate scored five straight on a three-point play and layup to spark a 21-8 run. Jones turned back-to-back turnovers by Illinois into six unanswered points — three free throws on a fouled 3-point attempt and a 3-pointer — to pull the Wolverines within 76-71.
Illinois (20-8, 13-5) responded with a pair of easy layups to push the lead back to 10, but Michigan swung back behind Houstan and Jones. The two capped the run with a 9-1 spurt and Houstan drained a 3-pointer in transition to cut the deficit to 82-80 with 2:03 remaining.
The Wolverines couldn’t pull any closer. Cockburn made a basket in the paint, Michigan came up empty on its next possession and Trent Fraizer buried a dagger 3-pointer off an offensive rebound to put Illinois ahead, 87-80, with 45 seconds left.
“It's definitely deflating when you give everything you've got and it's still not enough,” Jones said. “I'm proud of this group. We fought to the end. We could have gave in and said we lost, but every guy fought hard.”
Cockburn finished with 27 points — 19 coming in the second half — and Plummer scored 23 of his 26 points in the first half and made six 3-pointers for Illinois. Fraizer added 17 points and Andre Curbelo scored 12.
The Fighting Illini shot 56.7% from the field (34-for-60), including a scorching 70.8% in the second half, and made twice as many 3-pointers (10) as the Wolverines.
“Plummer had as good a first half as I’ve seen. That was electric,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It was a game where the offense was really good, and we were up to that standard.
“We know most teams are going to try to stop Kofi. Plummer has been spectacular, and he had a little quieter second half. … But then we got Kofi going. I like that balance.”
More: Wojo: Michigan run over by Illinois, and NCAA Tournament chances are shrinking
The teams traded blows during a back-and-forth start before Plummer got hot, scoring 13 straight points for Illinois over a four-minute stretch. He kicked off the personal run by burying a deep 3-pointer off a turnover and followed that by hitting a jumper while being fouled by fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks.
The Wolverines did their best to navigate Plummer’s shooting display, but they could do little to slow him down. He answered a 3-pointer by Jones with another deep ball of his own. Then after a tip-in by Jones cut the deficit to two, Plummer got a corner 3-pointer to rattle in.
When Plummer wrapped up his run with a pair of free throws, that sparked an 8-0 spurt that led to back-to-back 3-pointers off Michigan turnovers and forced the Wolverines to take a timeout as they fell into a 31-20 hole at the 8:39 mark. Michigan trailed 46-38 at halftime.
“Their speed in the first half, coming off the dribble handoffs, had a dramatic impact on us,” Martelli said. “And that's where I just felt, man, we're really chasing this game and (we’re) not settled in.
“They didn't throw the ball in (the post) till the second half. They were more attacking us from the perimeter. And we just had too many times where the ball was not controlled nor contained.”
After Plummer torched the Wolverines in the first half, the Fighting Illini provided a steady diet of post touches to Cockburn and pounded Michigan inside. He scored three baskets in the paint over Dickinson to give Illinois a 52-40 lead with 17:51 to play.
Dickinson did his best to counter, splashing an open 3-pointer and throwing down a two-handed dunk to cut it to seven, before Illinois used a four-point possession to push its lead to 13. Frazier made a jumper while being fouled by Jones and missed the ensuing free throw. Illinois grabbed the offensive rebound and Cockburn threw down a two-handed dunk to make it 64-53 at the 12:09 mark.
From there, Illinois pulled ahead by 15 before Michigan began mounting its late charge. But with a quick turnaround and Michigan State up next, the Wolverines won't have much time to dwell on the result.
“We definitely understand that every game is big for us,” Jones said. “I feel like it took us a while to get the energy going, so we've got to get back to the drawing board and get ready for Tuesday night.”