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Michigan 78, Illinois 68: DONNAL TIME

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Mark Donnal's career day means Michigan starts conference play 1-0.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan (11-3, 1-0 B1G) traveled to Champaign on Wednesday and, despite a tumultous first half, beat Illinois (8-6, 0-1 B1G) handily, 78-68. No matter whom they come against, conference road wins are a precious commodity; the Wolverines now take an important one back to Ann Arbor with them.

Michigan sleepwalked out of the gate. With little action and penetration on offense early, the team encountered a deficit from the tip and lagged behind until about the 12-minute mark. Ricky Doyle continued to struggle to catch the ball in the post and defend in space, so enter the hero: Mark Donnal. The forward had eight first-half points on 4-of-5 shooting and three rebounds. Donnal worked so efficiently in the first half that Beilein even made an exception to his two-foul auto-bench rule for him. This all after playing only 24% of minutes at center over the previous five games (via KenPom).

Caris LeVert was Michigan's best player in the first half; it also was impossible for Illini defenders to stay in front of him (14P, 2R, 5A through the first half). Through some lengthy doldrums, LeVert kept Michigan within striking distance as Illinois went on a 10-2 run to take a 29-22 lead at the final media timeout of the first period, punctuated by a Malcolm Hill three. Beilein's team refocused and went on a run of their own to tie the game before the intermission, but Illinois went to the locker room up, 37-34, in a half defined by Michigan's carelessness and poor long-range shooting (10 turnovers, 3-10 3FG).

From the beginning of the second stanza, Donnal made it apparent that his big afternoon was just getting started. With a few highlight-reel blocks, an impressive and-one, and even a fluid three from the wing, the Ohio product smashed his previous career highs, finishing with 26(!) points and nine rebounds. Michigan opened up the half on a 9-2 run and never looked back. Beilein's team played easy, unselfish basketball and showed signs of the multifaceted attack we hope to see as the season goes on.

We're still waiting to see Zak Irvin get into a rhythm with his outside jumper, but the other aspects of his game are coming along nicely (8P, 4R, 2A). As we've grown accustomed to, Caris LeVert had another big day. The nation's most efficient player (with a 25%+ usage) tallied another double-double (22P, 5R, 10A) against the coach he was once committed to at Ohio University.

Despite a sluggish start, Michigan beat a team that they should and got an ever-important road win in the process. We'll see them next for the first time in 2016 against Penn State on January 2nd at Crisler Center.