Illinois has just a half for Michigan in Big Ten opener loss at home

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Michigan guard Caris LeVert passes the ball to a teammate during the Wolverines 78-68 win over Illinois on December 30th.

CHAMPAIGN – With a number of key players out of the lineup for short or long periods of time, this is about what you could hope for.

Effort came early and brought hope, but lack of depth proved to be too much.

This might be the story of John Groce’s fourth season at Illinois thanks to a number of ailments that have left him with a short bench. It certainly is the narrative of the Illini’s first game of the Big Ten season.

A spirited start against Michigan at the State Farm Center during Wednesday afternoon’s conference opener wasn’t enough to carry the Illinois past the Wolverines. They rode the hot hand of a starter and reserve to outscore the Illini by 13 in the second half for a 78-68 victory.

The defeat drops Illinois’ record to 8-6 on the season and ends a modest five-game winning streak for the team that stretch back into the middle of the non-conference season. Mark Donnel proved to be a surprise thorn in the Illini’s side as he came off the bench to score a career-high 26 points and hitting 11-of-15 shots from the floor.

Sixteen of those came during the second half and coupled with Caris LeVert’s 22 points they outscored the Illini  44-31 in the final 20 minutes.

It wasted a solid start for Illinois that was led by Kenrick Nunn who led Illinois with 23 points of his own. Thirteen of those came in the first half when Illinois built as much as a four point. Jalen Coleman-Lands (13 points) hit a three-pointer with 28 seconds left in the first half to send the Illini to the locker room up by three points.

But they couldn’t keep the pace up in the second half. The Illini shot just 35 percent from the floor while the Wolverines shot 48 percent in making Illinois’ first effort of the Big Ten season just half full.