Michigan stays in race
Trey Burke added 21 points for Michigan (22-8, 12-5), which led throughout in its first victory on Illinois’ home court since 1995.
Illinois (17-13, 6-11) closed to within 40-39 with just over 15 minutes left. But the Illini missed three chances to tie the game or take a lead.
The Wolverines stretched the lead to 53-44 with 7:49 to play and Illinois was never close again.
Coming off a 75-61 loss at home to Purdue, Michigan came into the game still playing for that title shot.
Step one required a win Thursday over a down-and-out Illinois team. Get that, beat Penn State on Sunday and get Ohio State to beat Michigan State, and the Wolverines would have a title.
Illinois was playing for its increasingly slim hope at making the NCAA tournament, and fighting against persistent speculation that its coach, Bruce Weber, is on the verge of losing his job. Since briefly leading the Big Ten in January, Illinois has lost 10 of 12.
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 three-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 Leonard. That pulled the Illini to within a point with 15:37 left in the game.
And they stayed close over the next six minutes, but could not take the lead.
Then Hardaway put some distance between his Wolverines and the fading 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, Jordan Morgan 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.
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.
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.
Last updated: 2:24 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012