No. 13 Michigan beats Illini, 72-61Illinois center Meyers Leonard (12) puts up a shot over Michigan forward Evan Smotrycz (23) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., on Thursday, March 1, 2012. (AP Photo/John Dixon)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) No. 13 Michigan came to Illinois knowing another clunker of a performance such as the one the Wolverines had their last time out to Purdue would kill their hopes of a Big Ten title.
Something, Wolverine coach John Beilein told his team, had to change. Tim Hardaway Jr. took that message to heart, putting in extra gym time to fix shooting he said have been off for weeks.
The work paid off and the sophomore scored 25 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and led the Wolverines to a 72-61 win over the fading Illini on Thursday.
''I just made sure I got into the gym all week, 30 minutes before practice and then stay after practice,'' Hardaway said. ''I got a lot of shots up and make sure my mechanics were down pat.''
Trey Burke added 21 for Michigan (22-8, 12-5 Big Ten), 14 of them in a can't-miss first half that almost sank Illinois.
The Wolverines led throughout for their first win in Champaign since 1995. They hit 46.7 percent of their shots, including nine of the 19 3-point tries, and were 21 of 23 from the free throw line in what Beilein called a confident performance.
''That's all we tried to preach the last couple of days was faith, confidence and swagger,'' he said.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who is under intense pressure after losing 10 of 12 since the Illini (17-13, 6-11) briefly led the Big Ten back in January, could do little but salute Hardaway and Burke.
''We just didn't have any answers for them,'' he said.
Coming off that 75-61 loss at home to Purdue, Michigan knew if it beat Illinois, it could still win the Big Ten title with a victory against Penn State on Sunday and an Ohio State victory against Michigan State that same day.
Illinois was playing for its increasingly slim hope at making the NCAA tournament, and fighting against persistent speculation that Weber is on the verge of losing his job.
Michigan turned to Burke in the first half and he answered with 14 points. And when the Illini slowed him down, the Wolverines looked to Hardaway in the second.
The sophomore was 6 for 7 from the field - including all four of his 3-pointers - and was 5 for 6 from the free throw line.
Down 35-27 at the half, though, Illinois opened the second half a 12-5 run, half of it three straight short-range buckets from the 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard. That pulled the Illini to within a point with 15:37 left in the game.
Leonard, whose Marine Corps brother, Bailey Leonard, surprised him by coming to the game during an unexpected visit home from Afghanistan, scored those points with 6-8 Jordan Morgan on the bench with a should injury.
And, with Morgan mostly out, the Illini stayed close over the next six minutes. But they couldn't take the lead.
''We had three or four possessions where just didn't make open shots,'' said Leonard, who led the Illini with 18 points and nine rebounds. ''They just kind of controlled the game and took it away from us from there on out.''
First, Hardaway put some distance between his Wolverines and the Illini. With 9:14 left, he hit a 3-pointer that put Michigan up 49-44.
Forty seconds later, he sank another jump shot, this one shorter but finding nothing but net, for a 51-44 lead.
At the 7:49 mark, Morgan was back and chipped in with a two-handed dunk that made the score 53-44. The slam all but silenced the crowd and brought what had looked like a nervous Wolverine bench to its feet.
''That was the back-breaker for us,'' Weber said.
Burke was a force over the first 20 minutes.
He was 6 for 9 from the field with a couple of 3s - though he had some spotty Illinois defense to thanks for some of those buckets.
Just a couple of minutes into the game the baby-faced guard got a good look at what he could expect from Illinois' defense. Burke had the ball near the top of the key and, when a wide gap opened all the way to the basket, he drove by four Illini defenders untouched and mostly unnoticed for a layup.
The Wolverines hit 54 percent of their first-half shots. Burke was well into double figures, but Hardaway already had nine and five rebounds to go with it.
And, most importantly, Michigan had led by as many as 15. Burke's jumper with 3:37 left in the half put the Wolverines up 35-22.
The Illini pulled to within 35-27 at half.
Now Michigan heads into Sunday with that title chance on its mind.
''We've won four out of our last five, and we need to keep it rolling,'' Hardaway said. ''Coach always says that comes March, the teams that are playing well are the ones that will have a chance at the title, so we just need to keep it up going forward.''
The Illini close the regular season at Wisconsin, hoping to get a win that with a run at the Big Ten tournament could help rebuild a crumbling postseason resume, something Leonard said they can still do.
''I don't know why everyone looks at us like we're some different team and acts like we're not capable of doing it, because we are,'' he said.
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