Illinois 85, Minnesota 52
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Illini basketball season lives to see another day, as Illinois (14-18) cruised to an 85-52 victory over lowly Minnesota (8-23) in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament on Wednesday afternoon.
The Orange and Blue dropped bombs from beyond the arc, as they tied a season-high with 14 threes on just 26 attempts (53.8 percent). Illinois shot 55.2 percent from the field as a whole, and they registered their biggest win over a Big Ten program since defeating Northwestern by 33 in 2008.
Illini forward Michael Finke broke out of his Big Ten funk to lead the way with a game-high 17 points and five threes. Finke had 15 points combined in the previous six games.
Kendrick Nunn (15), Malcolm Hill (14) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (13) all scored in double figures as well. The Illini had 10 of their 11 players put the ball in the hoop.
The Illini started the game with five different players scoring a field goal before the first media timeout - taking a 12-8 lead. One of those was a three-pointer by Finke, who was 0-for-10 from deep in his previous four games.
Illinois followed that up with a 10-2 run, which included back-to-back hoops by Jalen Coleman-Lands to make it 22-10. The game never got within single digits the rest of the way.
The Illini hounded the depleted Gophers at the defensive end, as they had 11 steals and held Minnesota to just 39.2 percent from the field on the game. Illinois went into the locker room with a 38-22 lead, as they shot 51.7 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from beyond the arc.
They extended that lead to 46-27 in the first five minutes of the second half after back-to-back triples by Kendrick Nunn and Finke. The Gophers followed with a 7-0 run, but the Illini closed the game out on a 39-18 run to advance.
What it means
Illinois did what they needed to do and then some against a vastly inferior opponent. Thus, they will get their shot to keep playing basketball this season. The Illini have advanced to the championship game in the Big Ten tournament the two previous times they were a double-digit seed. No one is expecting that result this time around. But Wednesday's blowout win against Minnesota gives the Illini confidence heading into Thursday and allows fans to look forward to at least one more Big Ten battle.
What went right
Illinois' offense operated like a well-oiled machine, as they broke in the nets for the first game of the Big Ten tournament. They moved the ball and found openings in the shotty Minnesota defense. The Illini had 19 assists on 32 made buckets. The numbers were pretty and so was the execution.
The Illini kept Minnesota's freshman standout Jordan Murphy under wraps. He was just 3-of-14 from the field with five turnovers. Illinois frustrated him with traps and they made him force the issue. The Gophers couldn't afford him to be off to have any chance.
John Groce called a timeout before the end of the first half to draw up a play. The ball went to Jaylon Tate on the wing and he buried a three. (Reread as many times as needed). Tate has now made two threes on the season (2-of-10), which surpasses his previous season-high.
Walk-on forward Cameron Liss made the first field goal of his career late in the second half. The Illini got contributions from everyone. They had 30 bench points compared to six for Minnesota.
What went wrong
Illinois let the Gophers hang around for a while in the second half. They had nine turnovers on the game against a team that played minimal defense. Outside of that, there wasn't much to pick at.
Star of the game
Michael Finke: Illini fans have been waiting for the redshirt freshman to show the same promise and level of confidence that he exuded in December. They got their wish on Wednesday. Finke looked extremely comfortable spotting up on the outside and trusting his smooth stroke. His game-high 17 points was the most he's scored since Dec. 5 against Western Carolina (24).
Illinois will square off with No. 5 seed Iowa at 1:30 p.m. CT on Thursday. The Hawkeyes defeated the Illini 77-65 on Feb. 7 at the State Farm Center. Iowa was on top in the Big Ten standings at that time, but they have gone just 2-5 in the seven games since then. First-team All-Big Ten selection Jarrod Uthoff is second in the conference with 18.8 points per game. Hawkeyes junior guard Peter Jok (15.8 ppg) was a second-team All-Big Ten choice. Iowa has won five of their last six against the Illini.