'Street fight': Message on wall fires up Wolverines

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Before Saturday’s rematch between Michigan and Illinois tipped off, the Wolverines sent a clear message.

Instead of wearing its usual home white jerseys, Michigan donned its road blues in response to Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan calling the Wolverines a “white-collar team” following Illinois’ 85-69 win on Jan. 11.

The motivated Wolverines avenged their embarrassing loss behind a solid defensive effort, forcing 17 turnovers and opening a 21-point second-half lead before coasting to a 66-57 win at Crisler Center.

The idea to switch up the jerseys came from senior forward Zak Irvin.

“I thought we needed a little change,” said Irvin, who finished with 15 points. “It's our first win in our blue jerseys. It went a little bit along with the white-collar comment, too; blue jerseys for the white collar. But like I said, I thought we needed change.”

According to redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Wilson, none of the other players knew about the swap until the uniforms were handed out prior to the game.

“We were kind of stunned,” Wilson said. “It's kind of like a secret, but we liked it."

But that wasn't even the most stirring pregame moment. That distinction went to assistant Billy Donlon, who upped the motivation with a rousing speech that ended with him writing “street fight” on a locker room wall not one of the dry erase boards  in dry erase marker, a reminder that won't be quickly forgotten.

“We were like, ‘You know you can't take that off?’" Wilson said. "He was like, 'Yes, that's the point.' I mean his energy was contagious.”

Irvin has heard plenty of pep talks and rah-rah chats throughout his career at Michigan, but noted Donlon's address is one that will stick with him for some time.

"I've seen a lot of crazy speeches with (former assistants) B.A. (Bacari Alexander) and Coach Vall (LaVall Jordan) but that's definitely one I'll always remember," Irvin said. "To be honest with you, I don't think he knew it was the wall when he first started but I think once he started, he went along with it and said he knew.”

Michigan coach John Beilein didn’t have a hand in either of the motivational tactics but was in favor of both. After he heard the explanation for wanting to wear the blue uniforms, he gave it the go-ahead. As for Donlon's message, Beilein watched the defacing unfold.

“I'm up for anything that's legal that is motivational that makes our kids just realize that there's another degree, the 212 degrees that you can play at,” Beilein said. “Sometimes you got to be very simple with your approach and Billy was certainly very simple with that one.

"We won't have a painter come in until next year at least.”

In the end, it seemed to provide a jolt for the Wolverines, who turned in their best defensive performance in Big Ten play and a near complete game effort.

As for Morgan, he was silent much of the contest. After scoring 16 points in the first meeting, he finished with six points for Illinois, which lost its third straight.

“For me personally, I'm watching our team and obviously I'm more thinking of the last game leading into this one and I don't know if I would have said that if I was (Morgan) based on how we played the other day,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “At the end of the day, we knew it was going to come down to 40 minutes of great effort and execution and the team that did that the best was going to win.”

Wilson bounces back

Coming off a forgettable performance lowlighted by fouling out and being held scoreless for the first time all season in last week’s narrow loss at Wisconsin, Wilson stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points (7-for-10 shooting), seven rebounds and five assists.

Wilson carried Michigan for much of the first half and did most of his damage in the paint, corralling six offensive boards and scoring on putbacks.

"I think that I just had a rough game offensively (at Wisconsin). It wasn't really my main focus (to score),” Wilson said. “Coach (Beilein) told me to get back to the basics as far as rebounding, getting all the garbage points and stuff like that and that momentum carried into my offensive game.”

Irvin said the team played with more energy and it all started with Wilson.

“The way he came out and set the tone on the offensive end; rebounding the basketball, he got two and-1s off of that and it was great to be able to see that,” Irvin said. “He led us.”

Slam dunks

Irvin threw down his first dunk of the season early in the second half on a breakaway off a steal.

“It was a little bit of a relief,” Irvin said. “Immediately when I stole the ball I was thinking about all my teammates because I hear from them all the time and all I could do was laugh after I finished it.”

…Michigan held Illinois to 16.7 percent (2-for-12) from 3-point range, a new season low. The previous mark was 26.7 percent against Marquette and South Carolina.

“We were just running those guys off the line that can actually shoot it and just making sure we stayed in front of their shooters and kept them out of their sweet spots,” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins