ANN ARBOR, Mich. – On a day when the Illini basketball team finally figured out its issue with morbidly slow first-half starts, they fell apart in the second half.
Illinois built a 34-31 halftime lead, then squandered that in less than a minute as Michigan put six players in double figures and carved the Illini up in the second half Saturday to win its seventh game in a row, 79-69, at Crisler Arena.
After holding the Wolverines to 38.5 percent shooting in the first half, the Illini (10-7, 0-4) got beat inside and outside in the second half as Michigan shot 64 percent (16 of 25).
“It wasn’t the first half today that did us in,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “It was the start of the second half.”
Underwood, who said he was frustrated by a series of slow starts, made just one change to his starting lineup. He opened with Trent Frazier at the point, pushing Te’Jon Lucas to the bench.
And when Illinois led by as many as eight points in the first half, it looked like a positive adjustment.
Even after Michigan went on a 12-2 run to take a 25-23 lead with four minutes to play, the Illini responded by scoring on four straight possessions to take a 34-31 halftime lead.
“We played as well as we have in a long time in the first half and took Michigan out of much of what they wanted to do,” Underwood said. “Our ball pressure was very good.”
But all that good work evaporated quickly once the second half began.
Illini freshman Mark Smith opened the half with two unforced turnovers, causing Underwood to call timeout 48 seconds into the half. Michigan wasted no time attacking the basket and scored four straight layups and a free throw while grabbing a 40-36 lead.
And even though Illinois mounted a bit of resistance, Michigan continued to attack the rim. When Illinois did collapse to defend inside, Michigan kicked it out to open 3-point shooters and five of Michigan’s eight 3-pointers came in the second half.
“Our energy was very low in the second half,” said Illini freshman Gregory Eboigbodin, who for the second straight game posted a career-high in points. After scoring nine at Minnesota on Wednesday, he scored 10 Saturday on 5-for-5 shooting. Plus he had a career-best five rebounds and two blocked shots.
The other bright spot for the Illini came from Kipper Nichols, who had not scored in double digits since Dec. 3 when he had 11 against Maryland.
Nichols led Illinois with 17 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Underwood said he was disappointed in Nichols’ recent showings and was going to pull him aside for a talk. Then Nichols responded with strong practices after the Minnesota game, leading the coaches to believe a better performance as coming.
“He was really good in practice yesterday,” Underwood said. “He’s starting to listen. I have a couple rules on this team and one of them is that you have to listen. It was nice to see today. I’m happy for him.”
Underwood said leading scorer Leron Black is battling an illness. He scored just seven points, half of his season average.
“He’s been fighting a terrible deal and not sleeping,” Underwood said. “We got him to a doctor in Minneapolis and he’s not up to speed. That’s no excuse for the outcome, though.
“And Michael Finke had to fly back to Champaign due to a death in the family and missed practice (in Minneapolis, where the team stayed following Wednesday’s game).”
Finke scored four points and had one rebound.
Michigan (14-3, 3-1) used its balance and ball movement to knock the Illini off stride, erupting for 48 points in the second half.
Mo Wagner led the way with 14 points. He was the player running many of the layup drills to the basket. Duncan Robinson and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman each scored 13.
Illinois returns home and plays Iowa at 7 p.m., Thursday.
Underwood hopes by then his team can rediscover its shooting stroke.
“We open the game Wednesday by going 1-for-19, then we go 3-for-14 from 3-point tonight,” he sighed.
He also lamented the growing pains that come with playing freshmen. He pointed to Smith’s two turnovers to open the second half.
“Mark jumps in the air and just pitches it,” Underwood said. “Trent Frazier had one of those early.
“Every game someone scouts them and does something different and they’re not used to seeing scouting. It’s playing freshmen and it’s a problem we have to overcome.”