Big Ten Tournament, Quarterfinals: Defense and Davis lead shorthanded Illinois past Michigan
It couldn't have been emotionally easy for the members of the Illinois men's basketball team to play Michigan Friday evening in the third quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament. After 40 minutes of furious effort, however, the truly Fighting Illini earned a great deal of respect from everyone in their conference.
Earlier in the day, it became known that Chester Frazier--in many ways the heartbeat of the Illini--was lost for the entire weekend in Indy, and very possibly the entire season, with a hand injury suffered in practice on March 11. The news flooded through Conseco Fieldhouse and took the entire league--assembled in one place--by storm. Just imagine, then, the tone of the Illinois locker room before a challenging contest against a white-hot, momentum-rich bunch of Wolverines who entered this game playing their best ball of the entire season. Even with Frazier, a defense-first, ballsharing guard who holds the Illini together, the sons of Champaign figured to have a tough battle against the men of Michigan. Without Frazier, the notion of making the Wolverines an outright favorite was hardly silly. When tip-off time arrived, coach Bruce Weber's boys couldn't have felt very comfortable.
Now, as they await the Penn State-Purdue winner in tomorrow's semifinals, how different the Illini outlook must be. Behind a stifling defense and the heroics of Mike Davis, Illinois thoroughly throttled the Wolverines and their star players, 60-50, to quickly build back a sense of confidence in their huddle. If Illinois was uncertain at the beginning of this tilt, the Illini now have to know that they can win without Chester Frazier.
Davis stole the show against John Beilein's club, which is still headed for the NCAA Tournament, by tallying 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting. By using his length to play over the top of Michigan's defense, Davis gained clean looks and enabled Illinois to score within a simplified offensive framework. Illinois might lack the three-point shooting of the Wolverines and the power of teams like Michigan State and Purdue, but the Illini certainly possess height, and that's the one area where the Wolverines couldn't match up. To Weber's credit, the Illinois staff made sure to expose Michigan at its weakest point and attack on a consistent basis. That was one reason why the Illini pulled through without their glue-guy guard, Mr. Frazier.
As great as Davis was, however, the ultimate key to this conquest for the No. 2 seed was the fact that Illinois smothered the studs in the Michigan stable, DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris.
After playing so brilliantly over the previous two weeks, Sims and Harris--the inside-outside combo that has lifted UM to its first Big Dance since 1998--suddenly lost the Michigan mojo that had transformed their season. The Wolverines, a 7 seed that figured to pack a punch, were rendered powerless for much of the second half, as Sims and Harris were rendered largely impotent in the face of Illinois' defense. Sims and Harris went just 9-of-30 from the field and combined for just 24 points on a night when Michigan hit just 33 percent of its shots as a team.
The Wolverines reeled off one offensive flurry, scoring 13 points in just over three minutes to trim a 54-34 Illinois lead to 54-37 at the 3:33 mark of the second half. But other than that one surge, Michigan got muzzled by its white-shirted opponent. Illinois--up by a 25-24 score at halftime--attained its 20-point cushion by limiting Michigan to one field goal in an eight-minute sequence (14:48 to 6:48) midway through the second half, and after enduring the Maize and Blue's 13-0 burst, the Illini shut out Michigan for over three more minutes to affirm its advantage. When Sims banged in a meaningless triple with just 19 seconds left to break UM's last--but quite damaging--scoring drought, the 3-point basket merely brought the seventh seed within eight points at 58-50. It was a case of too little, too late for the Ann Arbor outfit, who missed a big chance to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding.
Speaking of seeding, Illinois just enhanced its status on the big bracket that will be announced Sunday afternoon. And if the Illini can fight bravely, even without Chester Frazier, a strong dose of defense could carry them into the second weekend of the biggest Dance on earth.