CHAMPAIGN — It looks like Illinois basketball has found its closer.
Needing a hero late, the Illini turned to Trent Frazier. With 13 of his 18 points in the final six minutes leading No. 25 Illinois to a 68-53 win over Michigan on Friday at the State Farm Center, Frazier delivered once again.
Frazier had 16 points in the second half and added seven assists, including a drive-and-kick to Da'Monte Williams that put the game on ice with 1:17 left. Frazier scored or assisted on 19 straight Illinois (13-3, 6-0 Big Ten) points before Alfonso Plummer made a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left.
"He's everything," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "He's our fixture."
Frazier has turned into the team's initiator and most important player since the team returned from its COVID pause. Kofie Cockburn is still the star and national player of the year candidate, he had yet another double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but Illinois' offense looked lost when Frazier was off the court and was reinvigorated when he returned at point guard.
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Frazier hit big shot after big shot, igniting the home crowd into a frenzy with a made shot and the wave of a hand.
"Trent is just a fun and energetic guy," Underwood said.
He scored or assisted on 19 of Illinois' final 21 points tonight after doing the same with 12 of the team's final 14 against Nebraska on Tuesday. That's a total of 31 of 35 over the past two games. Frazier has been irreplaceable.
“I think it really comes from being a fifth-year, having that experience,” Frazier said. “Having Ayo (Dosunmu) last year, seeing him play with such confidence with the ball in his hands late-game, making plays down the stretch whether he scored or passed. ... Right now I feel comfortable where I'm at in the late game."
Here are some takeaways from Illinois' latest win.
Defense has hit its stride
The defense is what carried the team to a win in what was called a "rock fight" by Underwood.
Michigan (7-7, 1-3) made only one 3 and had just five assists. Nebraska is the only team to score over 65 points against the Illini in the past six games while three opponents have been held under 60 in that time.
Michigan was without key players Hunter Dickinson and Brendan Johns, but Illinois still made the offense the Wolverines ran fail to create a lot of easy looks.
Most of Michigan's offense came from hustle plays or the offensive glass, where the Wolverines had 15 offensive boards.
“They played harder than we did tonight,” Underwood said, “which doesn’t have me very excited and doesn’t happen very often.
Plummer carving niche
It wasn't Cockburn or Frazier that lead the team in minutes Friday night, it was Alfonso Plummer with 39.
A good amount of that was due to the team needing shot making and with an off-night offensively from Da'Monte Williams, but Plummer fit in as the team's third offensive option and made some plays driving to the basket to be a secondary scorer until Frazier took the game over late.
Plummer was 5-for-12 from the field and managed to get 15 points while he was only 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.
More shot creation needed
Cockburn, Frazier and Plummer combined for 54 of the team's 68 points, bearing a large portion of the load offensively.
When Frazier wasn't in the game, the offense struggled with Williams looking uncomfortable as a point guard against Michigan's high ball pressure. Jacob Grandison and Williams are mostly off ball players with Plummer not doing a whole lot more consistent creation than the quick drive past a close out.
Illinois will get more of that when Andre Curbelo returns, and Grandison and Williams both hit big shots late and are good in their roles off the ball, but for its offense to avoid the mid-game lulls of stagnant possessions it needs to have more players or actions to create open shots.
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