Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Illinois 64; Michigan 72

For the second time this season, the Illini gave up over 70 points against Michigan. This time, however, the Illini scored 15 fewer points, and let a chance to gain ground in the conference with a road win get away. Defense has been their calling card this year, but they've had one problem. They tend to go through stretches where they completely forget about the defensive end of the floor. They did it tonight at the beginning of the second half, and they blew a 7 point lead as Michigan nailed five threes in a handful of posessions. That was the difference. It didn't help that Michigan refused to miss a free throw.

Daniel Horton was the obvious star, and quite frankly, it had to happen sometime. The guy is a good player, and he's been owned by Illinois his entire career to this point. And when he busts out, he really busts out. He went for 39 points, and while many of those came shooting free throws at the end, the 11 most important came in the first four minutes of the second half right after the Illini had stretched their lead to six. Included in the run were three pointers from Dion Harris and Ron Coleman, none of which were really contested. When the outburst was over, the Wolverines led by four, and although the Illini would tie the game one more time, they would never lead again.

Lost in the poor defensive performance were excellent offensive nights from James Augustine and Dee Brown, who added 23 and 20 respectively. Augie added 14 assists, while Dee pitched in 6 assists (albeit to five turnovers). Sean Pruitt also contributed nicely with 10 points on 5-7 shooting, including a fantastic drive from the perimeter that ended with a thunderous dunk. But the Illini got nothing from the bench. Literally. Zero bench points, two assists, and two rebounds. Jamar Smith was non-existent, almost moreso than the other night when he was benched by Bruce Weber. Speculation is that he has hit the freshman wall. Whatever it is, until he begins to contribute again, there's a big hole in the backcourt, especially with the recent spotty play of Rich McBride.

It's just one game, and it's not the end of the world, but the finish is tough. Iowa at home, then at MSU and at Minnesota. The good news is that this schedule presents a chance for the Illini to make a statement. As Bruce Weber has said a few times this season, it's up to the player to decide what kind of statement they want to make.

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