INDIANAPOLIS – Two shots in the paint. One bounces on the rim and drops, the other thuds off the iron and misses. That's the difference between Michigan's relief and Illinois' dejection.
That is tournament basketball in a condensed, compelling drama.
The Big Ten champion Wolverines won a game that was far closer than anyone expected, beating the Illini 64-63 in the conference tournament quarterfinals Friday. Ten days earlier, Michigan won by 31 in Champaign.
But the motivation to salvage a season is a powerful thing, and so Illinois took an eyebrow-raising, one-point lead into the final seconds. That's when the Wolverines won it with a smart play call and even better execution, Jordan Morgan scoring the winning basket with 7.9 seconds left. But they also had to endure a last try by Illinois, a remarkably good look by Tracy Abrams that came up short and ended any long-shot chance the Illini had of making the NCAA tournament.
The last sequences were relevant because Illinois dared to throw a second-half zone at a Michigan team that dropped 16 3-pointers on the Illini March 4 – "That took some gumption," Illinois coach John Groce said – and it worked. The Wolverines' offense misfired, and Illinois clawed back from a 13-point deficit
But holding that one-point lead with 19 seconds left, Groce switched back to man-to-man coming out of a Michigan timeout. Wolverines coach John Beilein, one of the best strategists in the game, had a play call that could be run against either man or zone.
The play was to send Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas off a Morgan screen near the top of the key. Stauskas, who had made just 2 of 10 3's in the game, informed Morgan that he was "going to shoot it regardless," so the center rolled to the basket thinking rebound after Stauskas came off his screen.
But the Illini were anticipating a Stauskas shot as well, and converged on him. As he rose to shoot, his plan suddenly changed.
"J-Mo rolled down the lane and he was wide open," Stauskas said.
So the shooter dumped it down to the screener. In a testament to senior preparedness and quality coaching, Morgan was ready for the pass. Beilein estimated that Morgan has run that very drill in practice – roll to the basket, take a pass and score amid contact – 2,000 times in five years. So even though he is passed the ball roughly once every lunar eclipse in an actual game, the big man wasn't caught off-guard.
Morgan laid it up, saw it bounce perilously off the back of the rim, and then drop in with 7.9 seconds left. And at the end of a wonderfully coached game, Groce's defensive gambit went wrong.
"As long as it's educated and it's well thought out and there's a reason, we've got to go with it," Groce said of the decision. "Hindsight is always 20/20 on decisions like that. You're right; now that I know that Morgan scored that basket as it looked like it was going to roll off the rim, I would have liked to have gone zone."
But there was still time to make it right. And after a timeout, Illinois got what it wanted: Abrams driving to the hoop from the top of the key. He was cut off and rose for a floater from maybe five feet out – a surprisingly clean look – and short-armed it. The ball barely got to the rim, and the game was over.
You lose a game by a point – even a game the Illini were expected to lose by far more – and there are plenty of regrets. Abrams' shot wasn't the worst of them – not when guard Rayvonte Rice went to showboat a dunk on an uncontested runout, lost control, tried to lay it in and missed. There will be a few things to stew on in Champaign Friday night as a season highlight slipped away.
"This one stings a little bit," Groce said.
That's the price of laying it on the line in tournament play and coming up short. Illinois played well enough to shock the Big Ten champs, but couldn't quite finish it. Michigan plays on.