ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Illinois started strong and seemed to be setting itself up for another impressive win after defeating top-ranked Indiana, Gonzaga, Butler and Ohio State earlier this season.
The Fighting Illini, though, were flat in the second half and No. 7 Michigan took advantage.
Trey Burke had 26 points and eight assists to help the Wolverines bounce back to beat Illinois 71-58 Sunday.
Illini coach John Groce said Michigan won because its team was tougher and smarter.
“It’s unacceptable,” Groce said. “It’s intolerable.”
The Fighting Illini (20-9, 7-8 Big Ten) had won five straight, a run that started Feb. 7 by knocking off the Hoosiers, and were leading the Wolverines (23-4, 10-4 Big Ten) by as much as eight points in the first half.
Michigan outscored Illinois 43-27 in the second half after Groce pleaded with his team to learn from its recent history.
“Coach talked to us at halftime about how we came out strong in the second half and beat Indiana, and how we came out flat and lost to Michigan State,” forward Tyler Griffey recalled. “We all listened, and then we came out and played like that in the second half. They really amped up the intensity and we didn’t respond at all.”
Brandon Paul played a key role in helping the Illini lead 31-28 at halftime – scoring a game-high 10 points in the first half – and was one of the reasons they couldn’t keep up the pace. Paul was held scoreless in a shotless second half.
“I’m not so concerned about him scoring as I am about our team scoring,” Groce insisted. “Teams are trying to take him away, guys have to step up.”
That didn’t happen.
Illinois had just two other scorers in double figures, barely, with D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams having 10 points each.
“We made a ton of boneheaded turnovers in the second half, and you can’t do that against one of the best transition teams in the country,” Richardson said. “They played smarter than we did and they played harder than we did. Give them credit for that.”
Michigan played for the first time in a week and looked rusty and sloppy early, turning the ball over the missing open shots. Illinois didn’t trail until Tim Hardaway Jr. had a three-point play with 3:30 to go in the first half.
The Wolverines opened the second half with a 15-3 run, going ahead for good on Burke’s 3-pointer with 16:49 left to play and had a nine-point lead with his two free throws that put him over the 1,000-point mark for his career.
Hardaway Jr. scored 13 and Glen Robinson III had 10 points. Freshman Nik Stauskas, who was averaging 12-plus points, missed all five of his shots and was held scoreless for the second time this season. Fellow freshman guard Caris LeVert took advantage of his opportunity to play more, scoring eight points, one shy of his career high.
Griffey’s second 3-pointer pulled Illinois within four points with 7:55 left, then Burke made a couple assists and a shot in a little more than a minute to allow Michigan to get a big lead back.
Groce was impressed, but not surprised because he has been watching the native Columbus, Ohio, play since he was in middle school.
“The thing that he’s always had is competitive toughness,” said Groce, who led the Ohio Bobcats past Michigan in last year’s NCAA tournament. “He’s had that since Day 1.”
The Illini are idle until Saturday when they host Nebraska before closing the regular season on the road at Iowa and Ohio State, trying to improve their position for the NCAA tournament. Groce said the break will be good for his entire team, but especially guard Joseph Bertrand, who landed hard on his left hit early in the second half and fouled out with 1:15 left to play.
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