BY CHAD DARE
The last time the Illinois men’s basketball program defeated the No. 1 team in the nation, the Fighting Illini went on to win 24 straight.
Illinois not only reached the NCAA Tournament that year, but the school also played for 2005 NCAA National Championship.
Even after winning its third game against a top-10 opponent this year, the group of Fighting Illini is still fighting for their tournament lives and the next round in their battle comes tonight against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in a 5 p.m. contest at Williams Arena.
“We’ve still got more games to prove ourselves,’’ said Illinois senior D.J. Richardson on Saturday. “We have a goal of making the NCAA Tournament and we can’t just hang or hats on one big game.
“This is about maturity and we have to prepare for this game just like we would prepare for any game.’’
Richardson scored a game-high 23 in Thursday’s victory, including eight points during the pivotal 12-2 run for Illinois in the final three minutes.
But, it was senior forward Tyler Griffey hitting the game-winning layup in the final second that gave the Illini a 74-72 victory over the Hoosiers.
“The biggest thing about that game was our toughness and togetherness,’’ Griffey said. “If we continue to play like that, we will do the things necessary to get the wins that we need to make the NCAA Tournament.’’
Right now, the Illini are the only team in the nation with wins over three teams in the top-10 of the latest Associated Press poll.
And Illinois followed up wins over then-No. 10 Gonzaga with a hard-fought win over Norfolk State (64-54) and then-No. 8 Ohio State with a loss to these same Golden Gophers.
“We haven’t done a good job this season of following up a big win with another good game,’’ Richardson said.
Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul added, “we need to show everyone that we can move onto the next game.’’
And the team hasn’t forgotten how Minnesota beat Illinois, 84-67, in early January at the Assembly Hall.
“They have the same players and the same coach,’’ Richardson said. “It’s probably going to be the same type of a scouting report.
“I know they did a good job of beating us in transition.’’
That was part of the recent defensive troubles for Illinois that seemed to get corrected against Indiana as the Hoosiers did not have a transtion basket against the Illini.
“The only thing we talked about was communicating more, connecting more out there, playing for one another more and trusting one another more,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought we did that against Indiana.’’
Today’s game will tip off at 5 p.m and it will be shown on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1