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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

Illini stop UM from the top

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
LaVell Blanchard, who led Michigan with 25 points, squeezes through Illinois' Sean Harrington (24) and Roger Powell. LaVell Blanchard, who led Michigan with 25 points, squeezes through Illinois' Sean Harrington (24) and Roger Powell.
DUANE BURLESON / AP Enlarge

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - One had to wonder at halftime yesterday how long Michigan's young Wolverines could remain competitive in their torrid contest against 18th-ranked Illinois before coming unglued at the joints.

Michigan had shot 55.5 per cent from the field with seven more rebounds and was 6-of-11 from 3-point range. It was, arguably, UM's best half of the season, but here's a clue as to what would ensue: The Wolverines led just 46-44.

Michigan persevered for almost the entire game, minus just a few measly moments at the end, but that was the defining difference in the Fighting Illini's 82-79 triumph.

A shot here, a big play there by freshman point-guard Daniel Horton in the waning moments and Michigan (16-11, 9-5) could be basking in a tie at the top of the Big Ten with idle Wisconsin.

But with Horton playing poorly and the Wolverines accounting for just two meaningful field goals over the last 8:37 of the game following a 69-64 lead, it's Illinois (20-5, 10-4) streaking to the summit.

The Illini, making plays when it was the final time to mobilize, are tied with the Badgers, both at 10-4. Michigan fell back into the middle of the Big Ten muddle, but is still third, one-half game ahead of Purdue, which lost at Michigan State yesterday.

“I thought we played with a lot of heart, all of our players,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “It was a gut-wrenching loss considering the position we could have been in with a victory today, but Illinois is maybe the class of the league right now.”

Horton made just 4-of-17 shots from the field, had five turnovers and forced three shots over the final five minutes that all missed.

“I thought our ability to hang in there the whole time ... I don't look at that as the reason we lost,” Amaker said. “I thought Illinois won the game. I think the plays Daniel was trying to make are the plays he's been making all year, and some of those plays just didn't work out for us this afternoon.”

After being mentioned last week as a possible Big Ten player-of-the-year candidate, Horton is 5-of-28 from the field with 11 turnovers in the last two games.

“I can't quite pinpoint what has happened. I'm not really sure,” he said. “I think I did a good job quarterbacking the team, it's just that when I had my shots they weren't falling. I didn't shoot the ball well at all.”

Michigan led 76-75 with 84 seconds remaining on two consecutive three-point plays by freshman reserve center Chris Hunter, but Illinois scored the next six points to hand the Wolverines their second straight loss and fifth in their last eight games.

Michigan had a chance to tie the score at 79 on an open 3-pointer by freshman Lester Abram with 20 seconds to play, but he missed and then followed with a missed layup after the Illini's Roger Powell made one free throw with 17 seconds remaining to make it 80-76.

It was the only two shots Abram took in the second half after making all five of his first-half shots.

Everything else being equal - and it certainly was with both teams 27-of-56 from the field - two other strong player-of-the-year candidates further distinguished themselves.

Illinois center Brian Cook scored a game-high 26 points while UM forward LaVell Blanchard netted 25, hitting 7-of-11 3-pointers.

“We could have beaten a lot of teams on the road today the way we played because Michigan played a great game,” Illinois coach Bill Self said. “The young guys showed poise, but it was the veterans who came through in the end.”



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