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Posted at 5:56 PM ET, 03/11/2011

Big Ten tournament: With a 'Yes' face, Michigan earns big win over Illinois

By Steve Yanda

"Excuse me, sir," the security guard asked the winning coach as he walked down the hallway toward his team's locker room following a postgame press conference. "Can I see your credential?"

Michigan coach John Beilein looked up and smiled. His team had just defeated Illinois, 60-55, in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals and taken a significant step toward securing an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament. This was no time for a "Do you know who I am?" moment. That's not Beilein's style anyway.

"It's on my jacket," Beilein said after a conference official had informed the security guard who exactly he was talking to. "That's alright, though. You're doing your job well. I like that."

Beilein continued his march toward the Michigan locker room. The Wolverines had erased an 12-point halftime lead and limited Illinois to 21 second-half points. They had pushed the pace and shot well from three-point range after struggling to do either before the intermission.

"Let me see those 'Yes' faces," Beilein shouted as he neared the locker room door. "We love the journey. Let me see those 'Yes' faces."

The Wolverines' journey this season has been eventful, to say the least, and players attribute the team's ability to overcome the adversity it faced to the constant attention Michigan coaches pay to the mental, as well as the physical, side of the game.

Michigan dropped six of its first seven Big Ten games before winning eight of its final 11 to close out the regular season. The Wolverines badly needed to defeat Illinois -- which had beaten Michigan, 54-52, three weeks earlier -- to sustain their NCAA tournament hopes.

Then Michigan fell into an 11-point deficit during a first half in which it struggled to control the ball.

"Things definitely weren't going our way there for a while," said Michigan guard Zack Novak, who tallied 14 points on 4 of 8 three-point shooting. "For a little bit I think we did get down, but I think we did a good job coming into the half and just kind of regrouping. Like I said, we didn't let it get out of hand too bad. We stayed within striking distance. We reminded ourselves that at Champaign we were down by about the same amount and also came back there. So on a neutral site why not?"

Late in the second half, Michigan executed a 17-2 run that spanned seven minutes, 20 seconds and turned a 12-point deficit into a three-point lead. Beilein credited his team's ability to not let Illinois expand its lead before the Wolverines could go on their run. But the players credited something less tangible.

"We've been in a lot of games like that where we've fallen behind but we've stayed strong, stuck with it," said Michigan guard Darius Morris, who finished with a game-high 17 points and seven assists. "Coach (Beilein) always talked about in the huddle keeping a 'Yes' face no matter what the score is. That means just positive energy. So I think when we do that, we're always in the game no matter what the score is, and then we just start focusing on stops, and then possession by possession we get back in the game."

The origin of the 'Yes' face dates back to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. His traveling party, riding horseback, one day were crossing a river that had overflowed its banks. One traveler asked Jefferson if the President would let him ride with him across the perilous river, and Jefferson agreed.

After the two men made it safely across to the other side, someone asked the traveler -- who had no idea he'd asked a favor of the President of the United States -- why he had asked to ride with Jefferson, rather than any other member of the party.

The story goes that the traveler responded: "All I know is that on some of your faces was written the answer 'No' and on some of them was the answer 'Yes.' His was a 'Yes' face."

"It's just body language," Novak said Friday. "We always want to have positive body language no matter what the situation is, no matter how bad or good things are going. We always want to have a 'Yes' face. This coaching staff is real big in mental stuff, just making sure your mind is right. And we didn't have some 'Yes' faces at times today. So they just reminded us to have a 'Yes' face all the time."

The Wolverines win sets them up for a date with top-seeded Ohio State, which has defeated Michigan twice already this season. Michigan players said they had no idea whether their win Friday had assured them a spot in the NCAA tournament, but they knew for sure that they would be in if they kept winning games in this Big Ten tournament.

The Buckeyes, led by Big Ten freshman of the year Jared Sullinger, will own a considerable size advantage, not to mention the confidence that comes with being the No. 1 ranked team in the country. But the Wolverines will do their best to follow their coach's lead and remain positive until the very end, regardless of wherever their path may lead them.

"It's just showing that you believe and there's power in it, that everybody -- we have some frowners on the team; the coach can be a frowner," Beilein said. "We need to stop frowning. We need to just play through and show that 'Yes' face all the time. Yes, I can do it."

By Steve Yanda  | March 11, 2011; 5:56 PM ET
 
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