ANN ARBOR — Blame it on the cold weather or the early tip-off.
Whatever the reason, Michigan was morose for a majority of the first half during Saturday’s game against Illinois. The Wolverines started 5 of 19 from the field until a 12-2 run late in the first half ridded them of their lethargy.
Trailing 34-31 at halftime, Michigan scored the first seven points of the second half and never looked back. The 79-69 victory over the Fighting Illini (10-7, 0-4 Big Ten) marks UM’s first seven-game win streak in four years when the Wolverines won 10 consecutive games during the 2013-14 season.
Michigan outscored Illinois 48-35 in the second half.
“I don’t think there’s anything pretty about how we’re playing,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “But at the same time, we’re finding ways to get out in front of people and win games.”
For the second time this week, freshman reserve Isaiah Livers nudged his way into the headlines. He scored a season-high 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including 3 3-pointers, in Michigan’s 75-68 win at Iowa Tuesday. Four days later, Livers finished with 12 points and helped keep the Wolverines afloat during a dismal first half.
It was an alley-oop to Livers from fellow freshman Jordan Poole that energized a sleepwalking team and electrified a muted Crisler Center. The highlight-reel play in the late minutes of the first half gave Michigan (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten) its first lead since it was 5-4.
“That’s my roommate,” Livers said of Poole. “We made eye contact. I knew at half court he was going to slow down and throw it up.”
Charles Matthews, Michigan’s leading scorer and often the team’s motor, played only 82 seconds in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. His first-half stat line of one minute, two fouls, and one turnover -- and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s zero points -- didn’t help in a brutal 20 minutes that saw Michigan shoot 10-of-26 from the field and commit 12 turnovers.
The starting five scored 16 points in the first half. After the intermission, Matthews, Abdur-Rahkman, Zavier Simpson, Duncan Robinson, and Moritz Wagner combined for 39 of Michigan’s 48 points.
“I think we just settled in,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We were beating ourselves a little bit.”
Wagner’s 14 points paced Michigan, which had six players reach double figures. Abdur-Rahkman finished with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block, Robinson scored 13 points, Poole had 11 points and two steals, and Matthews had 10 points.
In his first start since the season’s fourth game, Simpson, who had 15 points and seven assists at Iowa, finished with five points, three rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and five turnovers. Beilein wouldn’t confirm whether Simpson cemented his status as the team’s starting point guard.
“I’m not going to go there yet,” he said.
Michigan shot 51 percent for the game, thanks to a 16 of 25 outburst in the second half, which coincided with only three turnovers. The Illini entered the game forcing 19 per game, sixth-best in the nation.
Illinois was just 3-of-14 from 3-point range, including missing all six attempts in the second half. Kipper Nichols led Illinois with a game-high 17 points and seven rebounds.
“Well, it wasn’t the first half today that did us in, it was the start of the second,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I thought we did a tremendous job of trying to take Michigan out of what they want to do. The second half was all them. We opened the second half with two unforced turnovers. We’ve got to grow up. We put our head down and quit fighting.”
It was an entirely different game than the last time Michigan faced an Underwood-coached team. In the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, UM and Oklahoma State had 183 total points, both teams shot over 50 percent from the field, and they combined for 23 3-pointers.
Those gaudy statistics could be needed for Michigan this week as it plays the Big Ten’s top two teams — No. 13 Purdue and No. 1 Michigan State.
“Everybody wants to play ranked teams,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I don't think the energy will be a problem. We just need to stay focused. Every game is [a prove-it game]. You can’t slip in this league. Every team is coming for you every night.”
Said Beilein: “We can’t do anything but think about today, and think about tomorrow when it gets to tomorrow.”
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