BY CHAD DARE
Protecting the home court and winning on the road are keys to winning a Big Ten title.
On Wednesday night, the Minnesota Golden Gophers looked like a team wanting to claim a conference championship as they came in the Assembly Hall and defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini 84-67.
It was the Golden Gophers first road game in Big Ten play and it avenged their loss to the Illini, 81-72 in double overtime a year ago.
“This is a huge uplift. A huge confidence builder,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “We lost our first road Big Ten road game a year ago and it sent us into a tailspin.
“Hopefully, this will send us in the right direction.”
Minnesota, rated No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll, will now travel to Bloomington, Ind., to face the No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers before host the No. 2-rated Michigan Wolverines on Jan. 17.
“This a good win on the road against a very good team,” said Smith, whose team improved to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten.
Minnesota did it with sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe recording his fourth double-double of the year with 19 points and 11 rebounds, but it was sophomore guard Joe Coleman scoring a career-high 29 points, 24 of those coming in the second half.
“I thought Joe Coleman was outstanding,” Smith said. “But, the key was our defense, challenging and contesting shots.
“We didn’t want to give up anything in transition. We wanted to make them play a half-court game.”
That’s exactly what the Gophers did to the Illini, who fall to 14-3 overall and 1-2 in the league.
Illinois, which is rated No. 12, was outscored 14-0 in fast break points and the Illini were a dismal 3-of-24 from 3-point range, including missing all eight of their attempts in the second half.
“I thought we got outside the system on both offense and defense,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “When you play a god team like that, they will expose you.”
While the Illini were struggling, making just 23-of-65 shots (35.4 percent), the Golden Gophers shot a remarkable 52.9 percent (27-of-51) and they were 9-of-15 from 3-point range.
Those were not the kind of statistics that anyone would have expected coming into the game. Illinois won the possession battle with 13 offensive rebounds to just seven for Minnesota and the Illini forced the Gophers into 15 turnovers while committing just seven.
“I thought our effort was good and we competed, but we just need to execute better,” Groce said.
After falling behind by 12 early in the second half (42-30), Illinois went on a 12-2 run with Abrams scoring six of his 14 points.
But just as quickly as the Illini got back into the game, the Gophers answered with a 19-7 run ignited by back-to-back turnovers leading to a dunk by Coleman and a five-point play by Andre Hollins, which started with two free throws following an intentional foul on Joseph Bertrand and 3-pointer on the ensuing possession.
“We made a few turnovers in that stretch,” Abrams said. “We have to be tougher and trust the system more. We had a lot of guys trying to make plays. I don’t think our execution was very good. All the mistakes we made really cost us.”
Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul scored a team-high 21 points, while Abrams and D.J. Richardson were the only other Illini in double figures with 14 each.
The Illini will hit the road this Saturday as Illinois will play the Wisconsin Badgers in a 1:15 p.m. contest in Madison, Wis.
Notes – Illinois honored Mannie Jackson at halftime raising his No. 30 jersey to the rafters. Jackson, who played for Illinois from 1958-60 and was the first African-American letterwinner, is the current owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters will be playing tonight at the Assembly Hall… Paul got a bloody nose just five minutes into Wednesday’s contest. The senior was forced to leave the game and when returned he was wearing No. 12 instead of his typical No.3. In the second half, Paul was back in his original uniform number…Danville mayor Scott Eisenhauer had a front-row seat for Wednesday’s contest.