Gophers End Illini Win Streak In Style

Nature balanced Thursday night as the Minnesota Gophers ended a 20 game losing streak to the Fighting Illini by winning in Minneapolis, 59-36. It was closer than the score indicates, but there was no time when Illinois appeared capable of winning. It was total domination by Minnesota and a total collapse by the Illini.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber basically predicted it earlier in the week. He said that sometime the streak would end as Minnesota would be highly motivated and the ball would bounce their way.

"Sooner or later, it would reverse for them," Weber said after the game. "It's been a nice run, and to their credit they played their butts off. That's the best I think I've seen them guard."

The frigid Minnesota night seemed to make both sides sluggish to start the game. The Gophers eventually woke up, but the Illini remained in a state of suspended animation throughout.

Illinois struggled against Minnesota's aggressive defense. They didn't make good screens or sharp cuts, but more than anything the Illini didn't make shots. The 36 points was their lowest scoring output in 24 years. Weber figured the Illini should have led at the half.

"When you're on the road and they have 22 and they're shooting 31%, you feel like you're pretty good. But we were shooting 25%. They might have only had 10 points at the half if they hadn't made offensive rebounds and free throws."

Minnesota held a decisive 44-29 edge in rebounds and scored 19 points off offensive rebounds. They also had 12 points off Illinois turnovers. And they had many more foul shot opportunities. So while they were not hitting on all cylinders, their hard work and aggressiveness proved sufficient to pull away at the end.

Weber kept thinking the Illini would mount a comeback after trailing by just 6 at the half. But none was forthcoming.

"We needed to make shots somewhere down the road, and we didn't do that. They played with great energy. We guarded them for a half. And then at the start of the second half, we didn't make some shots and kind of let down. They got some transitions to get it up to 10-12 points. We kept saying we needed to make a couple baskets to get back in the game, but we just couldn't make any baskets. Nobody played well."

Weber reminded that this was the first game all year when no one had a good game. He was philosophical about it.

"In every game, somebody has always played well. Tonight we just didn't have that. It's one of those games. We've got to put it behind us."

Every team has a down cycle during a long, grueling season, and this may have been Illinois' low water mark. It will remind the players of their need to prepare properly and not take anything for granted.

"We're a young team, and we've had some great success. But tonight, we were not ready to match their intensity. To their credit, they used their home crowd and made enough plays to knock us out.

"It comes down to mental toughness and physical toughness. The mental toughness is togetherness. We've had some good times this season, but tonight was not a good time. It was a disaster, and now you've got to hang together. It's poise, you've got to help each other. And then the physical toughness and rebounding, which has hurt us all year. And the screening which we didn't do much of."

No Illini finished in double figures. Dominique Keller led them with 9 points. Trent Meacham had 7 and Demetri McCamey 6. Lawrence Westbrook led the Gophers with 15 points including two big second half threes to excite the home crowd. Freshman center Ralph Sampson III added 10 on the night.

Weber was succinct about the result.

"It was a butt kicking, and now we've got to learn from it."

Illinois must bounce back Sunday in a home game with Iowa. It will be important for them to refocus so one loss doesn't become two. Fortunately, it is often easier to return from a blowout than a close loss.

Thursday wasn't Illilnois' night, but perhaps Sunday will be a better day.

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