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UM gets bounces in toppling Illinois

03/15/2014, 12:58am EDT
By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Wolverines dodge Illini’s upset bid

Wolverines dodge Illini’s upset bid

INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan basketball team just got done smashing one enduring streak.

Can the Wolverines cast aside another one this weekend in Indianapolis?

A week after clinching its first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 1986, the Wolverines’ pursuit of a rare deep run in the league tournament began with a gripping 64-63 win over Illinois.

Searching for a sign Michigan’s fate could be different here this March? It came on two late breaks in Friday’s quarterfinal that qualified as either cruel or charmed, depending on your colors.

Senior center Jordan Morgan bounced in the go-ahead score with 7.9 seconds left, while the ninth-seeded Illini had a clean, close-range look to offer their biggest response of a day filled with them. But Tracey Abrams’ shot bounced off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.

The Wolverines tore onto the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor — equal parts relieved and rapturous — while Abrams remained frozen, later saying, "I’m shocked the shot didn’t go in."

"We’re thrilled to get that win," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Fortunately, we got some bounces around the basket at the end."

The Wolverines (24-7), led by 19 points from Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas, will play fifth-seeded Ohio State in today’s semifinals.

For Michigan, it was a feel-good twist on a Big Ten tournament script previously written by Murphy’s Law. The Wolverines had not won more than one game at the league tourney since winning the inaugural event in 1998 — a title that was later vacated.

Friday once appeared more of the same. Less than two weeks after Michigan thumped Illinois (19-14) by 31 points in Champaign, the Wolverines lost a 13-point lead in the second half. The Illini, mixing in a 2-3 zone that helped hold the Wolverines to six points over the final seven minutes, took their first lead since the opening minutes with 4:57 remaining and remained ahead in the final seconds.

Only a late audible rerouted Michigan’s day. With 20 seconds left and UM trailing 63-62, Beilein drew up the final play.

"The difficulty was knowing whether they were going to be in zone or man, so we tried to call a play that works against both," Beilein said. "If we didn’t like what we saw, I was going to use another timeout at the 10-second mark. But they came out in man, so we were just running something to get Nik the ball, and then get him some action."

If the set had fallback options, Stauskas had no reason to be aware.

"Nik told me he was going to shoot it regardless," Morgan said. "So I wasn’t necessarily ready for a pass."

Still, when Illinois doubled Stauskas on the wing, Morgan rolled down the lane. And, suddenly, his time-tested training for just that moment was put to the test. Stauskas raised up to shoot, then spotted the open Morgan.

"I'm telling you — and I probably exaggerate — 10,000 times, at least 2,000 times in the last five years Jordan Morgan has run that same drill," Beilein said. "There's a bag to hit him, you’ve got to catch it in a crowd and keep it up and dunk it if he can. He said he wanted to add a little drama to things, so he decided to put it up on the rim."

This year, finally, the bounce went Michigan’s way.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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