CHAMPAIGN — There was plenty of glamour at the State Farm Center before and during the game with the Chicago Cubs World Series trophy in the building, but Minnesota overcame a slow start to steal the show with a 68-59 win over Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
The Gophers had a week off after its loss to Maryland and Minnesota players held a players-only meeting during the week to discuss the five-game losing streak, and the challenge in character is something players and Minnesota coach Richard Pitino thought was a difference in the win.
“I told them ‘you guys need to start taking ownership,’” Pitino said. “I’m proud of them for breaking through.”
Reggie Lynch scored 15 points to lead Minnesota (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten) in a team effort where Akeem Springs added 14 points and Nate Mason and Amir Coffey had 13 apiece.
The Golden Gophers struggled for much of the first half before taking the lead in the last five minutes and ending the half tied at 35. Minnesota scored the first seven points of the second half to take the lead for good, 42-35.
Minnesota players knew that they have to dig deep if they wanted to avoid their six-straight loss, and with the momentum heading in Illinois’ way, the Gophers made sure something changed.
“We didn’t let it get into our heads and break us down,” Lynch said. “We fought through and knew we had one of the best defenses in the nation and the country, so we imposed our will and it showed in this game.”
Five Minnesota players finished scoring in double figures. Despite a late-surge by the Illini that cut the Gophers’ lead down to six, the team stayed composed.
“We really controlled the second half with terrific defense and we stayed poised and were confident,” Pitino said. “They made each other better.”
Kipper Nichols led the way for Illinois (13-11, 3-8 Big Ten) with a career-high 16 points. Malcolm Hill added 13 points and four rebounds.
Neither team shot well but Minnesota went 7 of 19 from 3-point range to 4 of 22 for Illinois.
The poor shooting effort was something that Illinois coach John Groce thought was unfortunate, even though he wasn’t mad about his team’s shot selection in the loss.
“Unfortunately we didn’t make enough shots today,” Groce said.
Minnesota: The schedule gets lighter for a couple of game for Minnesota to make a push for the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois: It just continues to crumble for the Illini. Illinois travels to Evanston to play rival Northwestern before a lighter schedule.
Dupree McBrayer scored eight points for the Gophers and grabbed three rebounds as the sophomore made key contributions from the bench.
STAT OF THE NIGHT
Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands combined to shoot 0-15 from 3-point range for the Illini.