CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ already-flimsy NCAA Tournament chances were reduced to tissue paper Thursday night.
Riding the stellar play of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., the 13th-ranked Michigan Wolverines scored their final 15 points from the free-throw line and defeated the Illini 72-61.
It was Michigan’s first victory at Assembly Hall since 1995, ending a
0-for-13 drought in Champaign.
Burke, the freshman point guard, scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half. And when Illinois switched Brandon Paul onto him in a defensive move for the second half, it left Hardaway free to go on his own rampage. Hardaway scored 16 of his 25 in the second half.
If Illinois was going to keep any realistic NCAA Tournament hopes alive, it needed a victory in Thursday’s home finale.
And after trailing by as many as 13 points, Illinois rallied and closed the gap to 46-44 with 12:15 minutes to play on Meyers Leonard’s basket in traffic.
But that only signaled Michigan to get going and it was Hardaway who showed the way.
First, Hardaway buried a 3-pointer out of the corner to give Michigan a 49-44 edge. Then, after Leonard’s jumper was short, Hardaway scored in the lane to extend the Wolverines’ lead to 51-44.
And after Brandon Paul’s jump shot missed, the Assembly Hall crowd seemed to slump back into its seats, only to see Burke dish the ball to Jordan Morgan, who dunked for a 53-44 edge that doused Illinois’ comeback hopes.
In recalling Morgan’s dunk, Illini coach Bruce Weber said, “that was our back-breaker.”
Weber said he believes Illinois could still play its way into the NCAA Tournament by doing something other than winning the Big Ten Tournament, which carries the league’s automatic berth.
But he may be the most optimistic man in Central Illinois after Thursday’s loss dropped Illinois’ record to 17-13 overall, 6-11 in the Big Ten.
“If you win at Wisconsin (noon, Sunday) and win a game or so (in the Big Ten Tournament) it would give you a chance,” Weber said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t studied it that closely. But I used the (St. Louis) Cardinals as an example. How many times in that last week did you think the Cardinals wouldn’t get into the playoffs … and they ended up winning the thing. A lot of things can happen.”
Weber’s optimism has trickled down to his players. Leonard, who scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, said he isn’t giving up.
“Obviously, this was a tough one,” Leonard said. “If we had grabbed this one, we’d have a better chance. But we’re known as a Big Ten team that can beat Wisconsin on the road. Not only that, we have the Big Ten Tournament.
“I don’t know why everyone acts like we’re some different team and not capable of doing it, because we are.”
Leonard played inspired basketball for a stretch, perhaps spurred on by a surprise visit from his brother, Bailey, a Marine who has been serving in Afghanistan.
While Weber knew for a month Bailey Leonard was coming to the game, the decision was made to keep it a secret from Meyers.
“I had no clue he was coming,” Meyers Leonard said. “It brought tears to my eyes to finally see him after his second deployment.
“He’s a very important person in my life. He put his life on the line every single day for nine straight months in his second deployment. I couldn’t be more proud to call him my brother.”
Brandon Paul finished with 15 points and Tracy Abrams added 12 for the Illini, who have lost 10 of their last 12.
Weber said he was disappointed his team didn’t play with the same defensive intensity it showed Sunday in a victory over Iowa.
“The difference is they go 9-for-19 from 3-point and we go 4-for-14. That’s 15 points,” he said. “And Michigan didn’t miss free throws.”
The Wolverines (22-8, 12-5) made 21 of 23 free throws and didn’t miss from the line until less than a minute was left in the game.