ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The last time a player dropped a back-breaking bomb on Illinois, Bruce Weber was on the other bench enjoying it.
Tuesday night, Weber's face was contorted in pain and frustration as he and his Illini players were unable to stop Daniel Horton from scoring 39 points in a scintillating performance that led Michigan to a 72-64 victory at Crisler Arena. The outcome hurt more than the bruised pride that came from giving up the most points to an opponent since Glenn Robinson of Purdue erupted for 49 against Illinois in the regular-season finale in 1994. Weber was a Purdue assistant that afternoon.
This loss threw a serious crimp in eighth-ranked Illinois' quest for the school's fifth Big Ten championship in six years.
Illinois is 22-5 overall, 8-5 in the Big Ten with three games to go beginning with a home showdown against conference leader Iowa on Saturday.
"It's pretty simple what we have to do," said Brian Randle, one of five Illini defenders who tried in vain to slow Horton. "We have to win out."
The job is made more difficult now thanks to Horton's career-best performance, in which he made open shots, guarded shots, easy shots, difficult shots, five of his seven 3-pointers and all eight of his free throws.
"The way he put us on his back offensively was a brilliant, brilliant performance," Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. "Daniel has a way to will shots in and will us to victory. His will and courage were certainly on display tonight."
James Augustine equaled his career high with 23 points and pulled down 14 rebounds for Illinois. Dee Brown added 20 points. But Brown needed 19 shots (8 of 19) to get 20 while Horton needed 20 shots (13 of 20) to get 39.
And for the first time all season, Illinois did not get a single point from its bench.
Weber was clearly disappointed in Illinois' defensive effort against Horton.
"I thought Chester (Frazier) might have bothered him the most," Weber said of his freshman guard. "But when we have Chester in there we're not as good offensively. At least he battled him.
"It seemed like everything he threw up there went in. When he missed you were surprised.
"You're thinking, 'He's kicking our butt. You might want to stop him from getting the ball.' It was like when Kobe (Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers) scored 81. They said, 'Who's the defensive coordinator?' Well, who was the defensive coordinator tonight? I guess I am. It's my fault."
Feeling it needed what Amaker called "a signature win" to fortify its case for making the NCAA Tournament, Michigan used an early second-half burst to grab the upper hand.
Illinois led 34-30 at halftime and went ahead 40-33 on consecutive baskets by Augustine. But Michigan answered with three 3-pointers in a bang-bang-bang period of 58 seconds to streak to a 42-40 lead.
The first 3-pointer came from Dion Harris and followed a turnover by Brown when he lost his dribble. The second came from Horton and followed a turnover by Augustine, when he dropped a pass near the baseline. And the third came from Ron Coleman and followed a wild, forced shot by Brown on a fast break.
Michigan made five of its first six 3-pointer in the second half and hit nine of 20 for the night.
Illinois did get the lead back briefly at 48-47 on Brown's 3-pointer with 12:13 to play and twice Illinois pulled even - at 55-55 on Shaun Pruitt's basket with 6:47 to play and at 57-57 on Brown's end-to-end layup following a steal.
If one shot stands out as the dagger that ended Illinois' hopes, it may have been Horton's basket with 1:03 to go that put Michigan ahead 66-62. On the play, Horton was being closely defended by Randle but somehow hit a falling, off-balance shot in the lane.
Two free throws by Augustine brought Illinois to within 66-64 with 44.2 seconds to go and on the in-bounds play, Weber told his players not to intentionally foul. Horton received the pass and Weber felt the Illini tied up the ball. Instead, Randle was whistled for his fifth foul and Horton hit both free throws for a 68-64 lead.
Rich McBride missed an open 3-pointer from the corner and when Augustine failed to control the rebound, Illinois had to foul Horton again. He would make four more free throws in the final seconds to complete the victory for the Wolverines (18-7 overall, 8-6 in the Big Ten).
"He was terrific," Brown said of Horton. "We fought. It wasn't us not fighting. He was unbelievable. He was fantabulous," Brown said, coining a new word to describe Horton's effort.
Asked what Illinois has to do now, Brown didn't hesitate with an answer.
"You know what we have to do," he said. "We have to win out or there won't be a Big Ten championship."
With this loss and two of the final three on the road, the odds are swinging in that direction.
Mark Tupper can be reached at email@example.com.