MINNEAPOLIS – Illinois nearly ruined a strong nonconference start by losing seven of its first nine Big Ten games to tumble out of the Top 25.
In this loaded league, though, the Fighting Illini still have time to catch up. They might’ve salvaged their season with this terrific week.
Tyler Griffey scored 16 points, and Illinois went 11 for 23 from 3-point range to beat No. 18 Minnesota, 57-53, on Sunday night.
“We feel like we can compete with anybody and we can win any game we play,” said Brandon Paul, who had 10 points. “The Big Ten is so crazy. It’s tough anywhere you go, especially on the road. So you find a way to tough it out.”
Three days after Griffey’s buzzer-beating layup gave Illinois (17-8, 4-7) a 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana, Tracy Abrams swished a step-back 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to stretch the lead over Minnesota to four. Abrams came off the bench for the first time this season after failing to score against the Hoosiers.
D.J. Richardson added 13 points for the Illini, who ended a 10-game losing streak on the road against ranked Big Ten teams. Their last such win was three years ago at Wisconsin.
“One thing that is happening now is that people trust each other,” coach John Groce said. “They trust the system more. They’re sticking with the game plan, even when they’re behind.”
Austin Hollins had 16 points and four steals for the Golden Gophers (17-7, 5-6), who lost for the sixth time in eight games and could find themselves out of the Top 25 when the new rankings are released today.
“Just another blown opportunity for us,” said coach Tubby Smith, who again sat at a podium lamenting the turnovers. They had 13, none more costly than with 50 seconds left with Illinois leading 54-53.
Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbak-we, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, tried to pivot out of a double team down low and threw a two-handed pass across the court that sailed out of bounds. Abrams scored on the next trip up the court, and Hollins air-balled a 3-pointer after that.
The Gophers played without senior forward Rodney Williams, whose shoulder injury kept him out of a game for the first time in nearly three years. That forced Smith into some awkward lineup combinations, and the reserves again struggled to establish a rhythm or avoid stagnant, sloppy possessions.
Elliott Eliason, who filled many of Williams’ minutes, had 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks and swished a mid-range jumper with 2:22 left to pull the Gophers within one point. But the Gophers didn’t get enough help. Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman combined to shoot 3 for 18 from the floor.
The Gophers, who won at Assembly Hall – 84-67 – last month while holding the Illini to 3-for-24 shooting from 3-point range, were trying to beat Illinois twice in the regular season for the first time since 1996. They led by as much as 13-2 and 26-14 in the first half. The Illini didn’t make a shot from the field until 9½ minutes were gone in the game, when Nnanna Egwu’s baseline jumper bounced off the rim and dropped in.
But the Gophers found themselves trailing 31-30 at the break after a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Richardson, his third in the final four minutes of the half. That fueled a 20-4 run by the Illini that didn’t end until a dunk by Mbakwe well into the second stanza, ending a skid of more than 7½ minutes without a basket. The Gophers knew the sharp-shooting Illini would find their stroke, that their tough defense early wouldn’t be enough.
“That’s how they beat Indiana. They’re a tough team. They needed that win just like we did,” Mbakwe said.
As the only team in the nation with three wins over opponents ranked in the top 10 of the most recent Associated Press poll, the Illini hadn’t yet proven they can play consistent enough defense to pull out gritty victories when the performance isn’t so pretty. This was their lowest point total in any of their wins this season.
“I’m just proud of the guys. We kind of carried that momentum into tonight,” Griffey said, adding: “When we needed stops, we got stops. When we needed a bucket, we got a bucket.”
Richardson made consecutive 3-pointers from the same place on the left wing on fast breaks that developed from rebounds of tough shots by the Gophers at the end of disheveled possessions, and then Sam McLaurin held his spot in the lane as 6-foot-10, 290-pound Maurice Walker powered past him for a basket. The charge was called, and Groce was so happy he gave McLaurin a bear hug at the timeout. Paul found space in the lane for a layup right after that, and suddenly the Illini were at 26-24.
“We want to finish the season strong, and that’s something that’s definitely in the back of our minds every game,” Paul said.