Fog hung over the floor of the State Farm Center, as both teams clanked their way to a combined 0-for-10 start from the field. Clank, clank, clank, spake the rims.
Coming into the game, Rice's return, an amped Illini crowd and a desire to avenge last season's blowout loss against Michigan were all reasons to believe this one was a game that could get out of hand for the young Wolverines.
That wasn't the case, as Michigan found itself up 6-2 early, that is, until the Illini rattled off an 8-0 run to quickly swing the pendulum.
Zak Irvin and Kameron Chatman put up some truly brutal misses early en route to a combined 0-for-9 start from the field. Michigan answered with an 8-0 run of its own, paced by some nifty play in the paint from Peoria, Ill., native Max Bielfeldt.
Both teams continued to struggle, but Michigan went into the half up 22-20. Rayvonte Rice, who was cleared to play after being reinstated, went 0-for-2 in the first half, making no impact in his return.
Ahmad Starks, however, who has had an up-and-down run from the field of late, scored nine in the first half to help keep the Illini's head above water. Illinois shot 30 percent from the field in the half to Michigan's 32.1 percent.
After a big game in Bloomington, Irvin finished the half 0-for-5. Fortunately for Michigan, eight points from Bielfeldt helped, as did Dawkins's four, which included a monster jam on a backdoor cut.
Strangely enough, as pointed out by Dylan Burkhardt of UM Hoops on Twitter, Michigan didn't hit a single triple in the first half -- the last time they didn't hit a single three in a game came in East Lansing on March 3, 2013, and Michigan fans know how that one went. They would have to hit a few in the second if they were going to close out a win after tough losses against Wisconsin, at Michigan State and at Indiana.
After a quite first half for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (two points), he buried a nice elbow jumper early to kick off the second-half scoring for the Wolverines. On the next possession, Dawkins curled and buried one from the opposite elbow to up Michigan's lead to four. Spike Albrecht drove lift and his patented scoop shot to extend the lead to six.
Somehow, against a more talented squad, Michigan once again found itself fighting its way into position to possibly pull off another win it had no business getting, giving the state of the roster.
Bielfeldt went to work at the rim, extending the lead to eight. Kendrick Nunn hit a three to end Michigan's romp, but Irvin finally connected on his -- and Michigan's -- of the game.
As mentioned in the preview, Nunn is a streaky guy. He buried another triple from nearly the same spot on the next possession, cutting Michigan's lead to five.
Well, after a dearth of threes, there was a veritable flood of them, as Dawkins answered right back.
With a size advantage when Nnanna Egwu was out of the game, Ricky Doyle struggled all game to convert at the rim, missing four layups through about 28 minutes of game time. Doyle was putting in yeoman's work on the boards, however, with six rebounds up to the aforementioned point in the game. An offseason in the weight room will do Sir Arthur Conan Doyle some good in the finishing department.
Malcolm Hill started to heat up, and Michigan's 8-point lead dwindled to three. Then, Albrecht, trick shot extraordinaire, lost the ball on the other end only to grab it mid-air and swish a jumper before his momentum took him out of bounds.
A few minutes later. Spike hit one from Kankakee, probably not too far from where Nik Stauskas hit his first half buzzer beater last year, giving Michigan a 7-point lead with under five minutes to play.
The Wolverines were in position to get the win -- they simply had to finish, a maneuver which hasn't been so simple. The Wolverines came in with a 4-5 record in games decided by five points or fewer.
Up five, Michigan committed a five-second violation on the sideline inbound, with Eguw making life difficult for MAAR. Rice hit for two at the other end, making it a one-score game.
Nunn buried a corner three on the next possession to tie it at 50. This time, it was the Illini with the comeback effort.
Michigan held the ball for the final shot, shot clock off. Beilein drew up a play with 15.1 second to play. With Illinois holding three fouls to give, they were able to drain the clock down to 4.5 seconds to play.
Just 4.5 seconds to close.
Again, Michigan failed to inbound the ball successfully over Egwu. Albrecht turned it over, but fortunately for him, Illinois missed its 30-footer as the buzzer sounded.
Once again: overtime.
Where they faltered against Wisconsin and at Michigan State, would they be able to regroup and find themselves this time around?
But, some stories repeat themselves, told over and over again, just creatively cloaked in different colors and different settings and in different tongues. The Illini reeled off a 14-0 run (on top of a 7-0 run to close regulation) -- in short, it was East Lansing Redux. The Wolverines scored two points in the overtime period, ultimately falling, 64-52.
Maybe the explanation is simple: with so few options, guys are playing so many minutes that even Tom Thibodeau would look on at the situation with shock.
Whatever it is, the Wolverines have been not been able to finish. Many will look back to the two miscues on inbound plays, and sure, maybe Beilein deserves some criticism there. With that said, this is simply a team, bereft of experience, depth or talent, running out of steam.
It's disheartening, watching Albrecht stare into the inside of his jersey, as if searching for an answer on the other side of that No. 2.
Sometimes, you run out of gas -- so you walk through the desert, looking for that next town. What else can you do?