Mr. Smith Returns to Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, IL-Credit the chicken noodle soup and the toast for bringing Jamar Smith back from the flu.

And while you're at it, give it the credit for the return of his jump shot. Or just be glad January is over. And give an assist to Luther Head.

who had been mired in a 11 for 60 shooting slump since the start of Big 10 play, went 5-10 from the field, including 3 three-pointers, and led the Fighting Illini to a 59-49 victory over Minnesota Saturday night at Assembly Hall.

"I tried to eat some chicken noodle soup, tried to do that and threw that up," said Smith. "Then (trainer Al Martindale) said to eat toast, and I pretty much lived off toast for the next two days. I was just drained physically. I'm not going to eat toast for the rest of this year."

Smith returned to practice on Friday after being held out for two days by the training staff. Friday night, he got some chicken soup and toast for his ailing jumper.

"Luther called me and gave me some words of encouragement before his game last night. That helped me out a lot. He told me he was a shooter, and I was a shooter, and I needed to shoot. No matter how many you miss…"

Smith's shooting complemented another strong defensive effort by Illinois (17-8, 5-5), who held the Golden Gophers (9-14, 3-6) to 31.5% shooting from the field and 16.7% (3-18) from behind the arc.

"The way they've defended the three has been incredible," said Minnesota interim head coach Jim Molinari. "You've got to play off the bounce against Illinois, and they are very good perimeter defenders. Any time you shoot poorly, defense has a lot to do with it. They made us take contested shots."

"This was a good team defensive effort," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "We've definitely done a good job on defense here the last three or four weeks, and I think they understand that that's going to be the difference maker if we're going to win or lose games."

With Smith back up to speed, Illinois had enough offense to pull away from Minnesota in the second half. After getting out to a 29-25 halftime lead, the Illini went on a 23-6 run over the first 10 minutes of the second half to put the game out of reach. The run was keyed by back to back 3 pointers by Smith and Rich McBride, and 3 inside baskets by Shaun Pruitt.

Minnesota went on a 14-5 run near the end of the game, but it was too little, too late for the Gophers.

"The real difference in this game is that we have no inside presence," said Molinari. We didn't post up deep, once we get in there we didn't score."

Smith and McBride led the Illini in scoring with 13 points each, Pruitt added 12, and Warren Carter chipped in 10. Brian Randle showed some signs of recovery from his foot injury, logging 29 minutes and scoring 6 points while leading the team in rebounds with 8.

Sophomore point guard Chester Frazier did not play, resting a foot injury suffered against Purdue.

"He laid it all on the line Tuesday night," said Weber. "He was crying in the locker room-he was in that much pain. He went through a little bit of the shootaround today and thought that he might be able to go. The doctors and the trainer took the decision out of my hands. They said ‘We're not taping him, so he's not playing. If you want him for two games next week, he can't play tonight.'"

Illinois now hits the road for two pivotal road games against Northwestern on Wednesday night and Indiana on Saturday. Having reached the .500 mark in league play, the Illini have a chance to cement an upper-division finish in the league, but will need success on the road, with 4 of their last 6 away from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall.

"Every game's huge-it's the biggest game of the year against Northwestern," said Weber. "They do things that you ordinarily don't face on a day to day basis. They're going to play 40 minutes of zone."

"(Getting to) .500 is a little step," said Weber. "You're at .500, but now you've got to get over .500 and stay there. They showed the top 5 in the Big Ten today, and we weren't up there yet. It's not going to be easy. We can't have a letup down the stretch."

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