The first half of the game was a back and forth affair, with neither team able to establish any sort of working margin as the lead changed hands 5 times and the game was tied twice. The Illini ran out to a 7 point lead with 5:41 left in the half on the strength of back to back 3-point baskets by Rich McBride, a dunk by Shaun Pruitt, and a 3-pointer by Jamar Smith. Another dunk by James Augustine, and a basket in the lane by Shaun Pruitt pushed the Illini margin to 10 with just under a minute left in the half, and the Illini went into the locker room at halftime leading 39-31.
"Early in the first half we gave up some offensive rebounds," said Dee Brown, who led the Illini in scoring with 17 points and also dished out 5 assists. The Illini were also hampered in the first half by early foul trouble on Brian Randle and Rich McBride. Randle picked up his second personal foul at the 18:03 mark of the first half, and did not see action again until after the intermission. "I was too amped up for the game, a little too ready to go," commented Randle. "I was fresh as can be for the second half, since I only played like a minute and a half in the first half." Commenting on Randle's foul difficulty, James Augustine joked "I think Brian took my role over this year."
Randle brought the crowd to its feet twice within a matter of 15 seconds in the 2nd half, converting a lob pass from just inside halfcourt by Jamar Smith for a dunk, then getting fouled on a dunk attempt the next possession that started just inside the free throw line. "I got a flashback to Penn State," said Randle, laughing. "I had a wide open lane. I told the guys in the locker room that it slipped a little bit when I went up, so I couldn't get it down, but I got excited, to say the least".
The Illini defense took over in the second half. They pushed the lead back out to double digits with 15 minutes to go in the half on the strength of a Brown 3-pointer, a driving bucket by Rich McBride, and a transition layup by Brown. They held Minnesota to 4 points over the next 10 minutes, while pushing the lead out to 25 points, and never looked back from there. The Illini scored in transition, in the paint, and from the outside during the game-clinching run, and forced Minnesota into 4 turnovers in the same time frame. The Illini defense focused on Maurice Hargrow and Vincent Grier, who had 10 and 11 points respectively in the first half. Both players finished with 14 points, below the season averages for both players. After allowing Minnesota to shoot 40% from the field, and 50% from behind the arc in the first half, the Illini stifled the Gophers after the intermission, holding them to 32% shooting and a frigid 14% from 3-point land.
"Grier is a good player, and Hargrow is a good player," said Illini head coach Bruce Weber. "We allowed a lot of middle penetration early in possessions. I thought in the first half they were pretty patient, got it to the open man, and got some inside outside. Once we made the run, it seems like they got a little impatient, which has been one of their tendencies, and they took some tough shots."
"Dee had just an all-around great game," said Weber, who improved his career record to 81-11 with the win. "(He) shot when he was open, passed it when he could, had some great looks, got it to the open man. To get Jamar going again was pretty good, and obviously that helps, and Rich McBride hit a couple of shots. One more goes down for him, and you've got five in double figures, and that's a positive."
The Illini had 4 players reach double figures, with Brown leading the way, Smith adding 16 on 5-8 shooting (all from beyond the 3-point stripe), James Augustine chipped in with 13 points and 10 rebounds for his 6th double-double of the season, and Brian Randle finished with 10 and 8 boards. The Illini shot 48% for the game, but continued to struggle from the free throw line, finishing at 61% after finishing the first half at 83%.
The Illini also won the battle of the boards, outrebounding the Gophers 37-32, and dished out 18 assists.
The Illini next face Purdue on Saturday in Assembly Hall.
GAME NEWS AND NOTES
- The Illini's 32 game home winning streak ties the longest in school history, and is second longest in the country, tied with Gonzaga and behind only Southern Illinois, whose streak currently stands at 33.
- Minnesota is the 13th opponent to shoot less than 40% from the field against IL this year.
- Dee Brown was 7-11 from the field, his best shooting night of the year, and best since the Fairleigh-Dickinson game in the NCAA tournament last year.
- Dee also moved into 2nd place on the Illini all-time assist list, passing Deron Williams. Dee's 597 career assists trails only Bruce Douglas with 765.
- James Augustine is tied for 25th on the all time Illini scoring list with Audie Mathews.
- Warren Carter did not play tonight. Coach Weber stated that he did not take care of business timely, and the assumption is that Warren was late for a practice.