The Illini avoided another step down into the cellar. Minnesota came into Saturday night having lost 11 of their last 12 games. The only win on that slate was against Chicago State, who is considered one of the 10 worst teams in college basketball - per the Ken Pom rankings. Illinois needed a buzzer-beater to take down that same Chicago State team. And they needed a late surge in the closing moments of regulation and into overtime to defeat the Big Ten-winless Gophers 76-71. The eye test isn't going to make Illini fans feel much better. This was another example of the Orange and Blue playing dangerously close with a bad basketball team. But the players and coaches will gladly take a conference road win any way that they can get one. Illinois had lost eight straight true road games, and this was their first win on the road since Feb. 7, 2015 against Michigan State. Big Ten games are battles more likely than not. Minnesota played No. 25 Indiana and No. 11 Michigan State within single-digits at "The Barn" this season. The Gophers were also coming off a narrow loss at Michigan earlier in the week. Given the circumstances for the Illini, survival may not sound so bad.
Malcolm Hill played like a star. Hill may not be the leader that this team needs. His go-with-the-flow persona may agitate fans who are angry about the state of their beloved basketball program. His competitive fire and will to win at all costs have been questioned. Talent has never been an issue, though, and Hill put that on display against the Gophers on Saturday night. The junior forward finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, which was the fourth double-double of his career. Hill was good when the Illini needed him most. He was active in the first half with a team-high 11 points, while Kendrick Nunn had just two points during the first 20 minutes. Hill also scored 11 points in the final six minutes between the end of regulation and overtime. That included a crucial drive to the hoop with the Illini down 60-58 with less than 35 seconds left. Hill drew contact and sank both free throws to send it into overtime. His 10 rebounds were also a big reason that Illinois outrebounded their opponent for the first time in eight games (South Dakota - 12/19/15).
Finke and Morgan were paramount. The Illini leaned heavily on Michael Finke (36 minutes) and Maverick Morgan (35 minutes) on Saturday, as Mike Thorne Jr. sat out due to knee soreness. Head coach John Groce elected to utilize a big lineup, while packing in his defense with a zone. The results played into Illinois' favor. Offensively, the duo provided a significant spark with 23 points combined. Morgan was particularly impressive with 14 points, while going 7-of-12 from the field. The junior big man has been efficient with his shot all season (57.9 percent). But this was another level for Morgan with his aggressiveness and confidence. He also managed to pull in seven rebounds, which was more rebounds than he had in the previous six Big Ten games. Finke was also huge on the boards with an eye-popping 16 rebounds, including 14 on the defensive glass. He had just one defensive rebound in the previous three games.
The zone was ultimately a win. Groce decided that he wasn't going to allow Minnesota to win by driving to the hoop. Instead, he was going to make them win by shooting jump shots. The strategy was a good one considering that the Gophers had the lowest field goal percentage of any team in the Big Ten. Minnesota gave the Illini a little bit of a scare by hitting 11 threes - with five apiece coming from Nate Mason and Joey King. Those triples kept the Gophers in the game to some extent, as Mason hit three triples in less than five minutes to regain the lead late in the second half. But Minnesota ended up jacking 36 attempts from long range on the game, which played into Illinois' hands. The Illini really won the trade-off down low. For a team that has been consistently beaten on the glass and with points in the paint, they finally came out on the right side of the battle. Illinois out-rebounded the Gophers 49-to-38, and they had 28 points in the paint compared to Minnesota's 22. That was the first time the Illini had more points in the paint than their opponent in 11 games.
Time to build on it. The Illini deserve some credit for finishing off a Big Ten win. They did what they had to do on that given night. But by itself, it's not a win that is going to make Illini fans feel any better about the program. It's not going to silence the moans and groans. When some members of the fan base are suggesting Jerrance Howard as the next head coach, you're not there yet. For this win to mean anything, the Illini have to build from it going into a pair of home games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. These are both winnable contests, but they'll be far bigger tests than Minnesota. This is still a team that is just .500 after 20 games through the season. They still have a ways to go to show the kind of progress that ensures the future of their head coach.