Minnesota 68, Illinois 59
CHAMPAIGN - More than 1,300 fans came to State Farm Center on Saturday to take a picture with the Chicago Cubs' World Series trophy. Some stood in line outside the arena in freezing temperature for hours just to get a few seconds next to the the Cubs first championship trophy in 108 years.
Championship trophies are quite an attraction at a place that hasn't added many during the past decade -- and those Braggin' Rights trophies aren't much to brag about given how far Missouri has fallen.
In a battle of 11th and 12th place Big Ten teams, Illinois (13-11, 3-8 Big Ten) saw its first sell-out crowd of the season head for the exits with a minute left in the game as its team fell to 13th place in the Big Ten with its sixth loss in seven games. Meanwhile, Minnesota (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten) dominated the second half to snap a five-game losing streak and strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume.
The teams were square 35-35 at halftime. Illinois made eight of its first 14 shots to take a quick 18-13 lead. But the Illini went ice cold, missing 10 of its next 13 shots, and the Gophers claimed a 30-25 run thanks to an 8-0 run. But during the final 2:18 of the half, Kipper Nichols hit a three, a bank-in two through a foul followed with a free throw and then made another jumper to tie the game.
Minnesota came out of the half blazing though, starting with a 7-0 run. The Gophers then made seven consecutive field goals and eventually claimed a 59-46 lead.
Both teams shot 38 percent from the field, but Minnesota made three more 3-pointers and six more free throws. The Gophers shot 13-for-28 from the field in the second half.
Four Gophers scored in double-figures, led by Reggie Lynch's 15 points and six rebounds. Akeem Springs added 14 points, while Amir Coffey and Nate Mason each added 13.
Illlinois out-rebounded Minnesota 42-40 but shot 4-for-22 from three. Freshman forward Kipper Nichols went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and scored a season-high 16 points off the bench to lead the Illini.
Maverick Morgan notched his third double-double of the season, totaling 12 points (6-for-13 FG) and 11 rebounds. Malcolm Hill added 13 points (5-for-18 FG), four rebounds and six assists, and Leron Black (10 rebounds) pulled down double-digit rebounds for the third time this season.
Illinois had its first sellout since March 4, 2015, against Nebraska and the first at the renovated State Farm Center
What it means
Illini coach John Groce is now 32-51 during Big Ten play during five seasons at Illinois. He's missed three straight NCAA Tournaments. To end that streak, Illinois may have to win out during the regular season -- or win the Big Ten Tournament. Both seem like 0.000001 percent probabilities. There is still a month left in the season, but the focus will be on how ugly it gets before athletic director Josh Whitman tells everyone his plan for the basketball program. Minnesota is having the type of season expected out of Illinois. Rich Pitino landed an impact transfer (Lynch), an in-state recruiting coup (Coffey) and has a dynamic upperclassman point guard (Mason). His program appears to be taking the next step. Meanwhile, Illinois continues to fall down the ladder.
What went right
John Groce said Kipper Nichols doesn't always know what to do or where to go yet on the court. But the 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman certainly adds a presence on the court. He always brings energy and toughness -- two areas many of the Illini lack. When he's hitting shots, he's a complete player -- and one fans can get behind.
Three #MAVDUNKS! What a treat! Honestly, Illinois has likely finished last in the league in dunks for the past five, or maybe 10, years. Dunks are high-percentage shots -- and fun. More of them, please.
What went wrong
Missed three-pointers. Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands got great looks from three -- but they went a combined 0-for-15 from beyond the arc. That's the story of the game. Hill forced several shots throughout the game and made a terrible turnover with under four minutes remaining. He shot a three, which rimmed out, but got the rebound back and loaded up to take another three. But in midair, he passed it to an open space on the court for a turnover, which Minnesota returned for a fastbreak layup. Jalen Coleman-Lands was ice cold. He shot 0-for-10 from the field, including 0-for-8 from three. It was just the second game of the season that the sophomore sharpshooter did not make a field goal (0-for-8 against Florida State). At one point in the second half, Coleman-Lands passed up an open shot, prompting Groce to yell, "That's your job! Shoot the ball!"
Groce's substitution patterns still confuse. He played Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams together -- which leads to scoring droughts -- but used Hill to bring the ball up the court. Nichols was the fourth sub to enter in the second half after he scored 13 points in the first half. Groce's insistence on playing Tate -- despite benching Abrams -- continues to baffle given that Tate is an offensive liability.
Second-chance points. Minnesota scored 12 points on 10 first-half offensive rebounds. Illinois allowed just two second-half offensive rebounds, but the issues on the glass in the first half kept them from taking a larger early lead.
Illinois heads back on the road -- a scary place for the Illini, who are 0-5 in true road games -- for a 7 p.m. tipoff Tuesday at No. 25 Northwestern. Even if Illini fans are sick of it already, the Wildcats (18-5, 7-3 Big Ten) are one of the best stories of the college basketball season. In his third season at the helm, Chris Collins has Northwestern on the verge of history. The Wildcats likely need to win just three of its last eight games to make their first NCAA Tournament in program history. Two of those games come against Illinois, which will try to play spoiler against the in-state conference rival. The Wildcats are loaded on the wings, led by junior guards Bryant McIntosh (13.2 ppg, 5.6 apg) and Scottie Lindsey (15.4 ppg) and sophomore forward Vic Law (13.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Their X-factor is sophomore center Derek Pardon (7.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Northwestern has the second-best defensive efficiency in the Big Ten and the second-lowest turnover rate in the conference.