Illinois defeats another ranked opponent in 57-53 win over No. 18 Minnesota
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com @herbgould February 10, 2013 7:34PM
Seniors Brandon Paul (left) and D.J. Richardson will be among five Illini playing their final game at Assembly Hall on Saturday against Nebraska. | AP
Record: 17-8, 4-7. RPI: 35.
Big Ten RPI (conference): 1.
Last 10 games: 4-6.
Next three games: Wednesday vs. Purdue, Sunday at Northwestern, Feb. 21 vs. Penn State.
Big wins (RPI): at Gonzaga (12), vs. Indiana (13), Butler* (14), vs. Ohio State (18).
Bad losses (RPI): vs. Northwestern (101), at Purdue (129).
*—at Maui Invitational
Note: RPI is from last Monday (before the Illini beat Indiana and Minnesota). Source for
Updated: February 10, 2013 9:50PM
MINNEAPOLIS — Staring at a season on the brink, Illinois responded with a week to remember.
After their shocking upset of top-ranked Indiana on Thursday in Champaign, the Illini added an
impressive 57-53 road victory Sunday against No. 18 Minnesota.
The victory was Illinois’ fifth against a team ranked in the
Top 25 — tied with the Hoosiers for the most in the country — and the Illini’s first back-to-back triumphs since their 12-0 start revived their NCAA tournament hopes, which had been looking shaky.
Most important, Illinois (17-8, 4-7 Big Ten) is playing with the
urgency and execution that had been missing since before Christmas.
‘‘I was really proud of the guys,’’ coach John Groce said. ‘‘I thought they really battled. The one thing that’s happening now is, our guys are trusting each other more, trusting the system more, even when we’re behind. That’s happened two games in a row now. That’s a great sign of maturity.’’
Meanwhile, the foldin’ Gophers (17-7, 5-6), who have made winter swoons an annual rite, dropped to 3-15 in the last three Februarys.
Tyler Griffey came off the bench to lead the Illini with 16 points. D.J. Richardson (13) and Brandon Paul (10) also were in double figures. Austin Hollins scored 16 points for Minnesota.
But what Illinois really is enjoying is its defense. What had been a sore spot has become a key to success.
‘‘We’re really talking more on
defense, and it really shows,’’ Griffey said. ‘‘Communication has been at an all-time high these past two games. It’s really been fun to be a part of.’’
Trailing 26-14 with 41/2 minutes left in the first half, the Illini closed the half with a 17-4 burst to take a 31-30 lead at the break.
Richardson, who sparked the upset of Indiana, once again was Illinois’ sharpest shooter. He made back-to-back three-pointers to spark the rally, then sank a tough, off-balance three-pointer that beat the halftime buzzer and gave the
Illini their first lead.
‘‘We showed maturity,’’ said Richardson, who has taken out his mouthguard so he can lead without mumbling. ‘‘Coach has been telling me I have to take over the team, be more vocal, and that’s what I’ve been doing.’’
Illinois traded punches with the Gophers throughout the second half, then delivered a clinching one-two combination.
With the Illini leading 54-53, Sam McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu double-teamed Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe when he got the ball in the low post, forcing him to throw it out of bounds.
‘‘That was a big stop,’’ Groce said. ‘‘The [two trapping] guys did a great job. And the three not
involved in the trap did a great job of recognizing where they were supposed to be.’’
At the other end, Tracy Abrams made a three-pointer with 18 seconds left that put Illinois ahead 57-53.
It all adds up to an Illini team that appears to be moving forward again after a rough Big Ten start.
‘‘[Our confidence level] is pretty high,’’ Abrams said, ‘‘but we have seven more games. We just have to stay consistent and keep learning.’’