The Illini traveled up Minneapolis on Tuesday evening with just one thing on their mind, remind Ohio State that they need to win out to claim the Big Ten Championship all to themselves. With the Illini’s 71-65 victory over Minnesota in the Barn, Illinois now is becoming big Northwestern fans tomorrow night, hoping their in-state nemesis can knock off the Buckeyes in Evanston tomorrow. James Augustine led the way for the Illini with a near triple double of 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Dan Monson has to hate the color orange. While he was Head Coach at Gonzaga, one of the biggest thorns in his Bulldog’s side was the orange clad Pepperdine Wave. Since he has been the Head Coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, he has yet to beat the Fighting Illini, a streak extending for over six years. It would appear that Carl Spackler’s Fighting Illini have been pretty successful hunting Gophers since Monson started roaming the sidelines in Minneapolis.
The Illini headed into Tuesday night’s game knowing they needed to win on Minnesota’s Senior Night (something not all that uncommon for Illinois over the last six years), or their slim chance for a third straight Big Ten Championship would definitely fall short. The win for the Illini was not easy on Tuesday evening, but the Illini seniors would not let the Illini lose in Minneapolis for the first time in their four year career. James Augustine led the Illini with yet another double double, 16 points and 10 rebounds, and surprisingly led the Illini with 7 assists. Dee Brown chipped in with 14 points, 4 assists, and 3 steals on the evening.
In an escape from the norm this season, it was the Illini offense that carried the Illini defense to victory on Tuesday evening. For the first time since the National Championship game last April, the Illini defense allowed a team to shoot over fifty percent against them on Tuesday night. Early in the game, it seemed like the Gophers could not miss a shot, most noticeably on again off again Gopher Maurice Hargrow who made his first six shots before finishing the game seven of eight from the floor in the contest for 17 points. But it was Minnesota’s star senior Vincent Grier that the Illini had no answer for in the first half.
At the beginning of the game, Brian Randle drew the defensive assignment of slowing down Minnesota’s most potent offensive threat. He was pretty unsuccessful, as all he did was pick up two fouls (including a three point play for Grier that was deemed Sports Center’s Top Play for the night) and find a spot sitting underneath the court right next to the Illini assistant coaches. After the half time buzzer, Bruce Weber decided to keep Brian Randle off of Vincent Grier, in an obvious effort to keep his talented wing forward one the floor, and not in foul trouble, and decided to have junior guard Rich McBride defend the Gopher star one-on-one. McBride did a great job on Minnesota’s best offensive threat by keeping him out of the lane and ensuring he did not get off screens quickly. There were very few defensive lapses in the second half on Grier, and they normally occurred when McBride was not guarding him.
Offensive Efficiency: 123.78
Defensive Efficiency: 113.32
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 24%
Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 75%
While for the majority of the game, the Gopher offense was able to score when they wanted to, when the Illini made their run in the second half, it was keyed on their defense. The Illini held the Gophers scoreless for nearly five minutes in the second half while the Illini built up a nine point lead. It looked like the Gophers were out of the game, but then a Zach Puchtel block of a Shaun Pruitt dunk attempt jump started the Gophers into a quick basket followed by an Adam Boone three-pointer to cut the Illini lead to 60-56 with just over four minutes remaining in the contest.
The next basket was a Jamar Smith three pointer giving the Illini a seven point lead with just over two and a half minutes left in the game. It was at this point where Bruce Weber decided to take the air out of the ball and milked two straight Illini possessions killing off nearly 1:10 of the game clock, effectively ending the Gophers chance to complete their come back against the Illini.
Outside of the Illini seniors, it was once again Rich McBride who stepped up and played big for the Illini. The junior guard is establishing himself as the third offensive option for the Illini, and has become more confident in his all around game on the offensive side of the floor. On Tuesday night Rich shot 5-for-10 from the floor, including 2-for-5 from behind the three point arc, and was consistently taking the ball to the basket in the offense. As the NCAA Tournament approaches for the Fighting Illini, the second most important indicator of how the Illini will play in a game is the play of junior Rich McBride (the most important is still James Augustine’s play).