Dominique Keller and the Illini return to action on Sunday against Iowa.
Jan. 29, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Minnesota coach Tubby Smith didn't miss an opportunity this week to motivate his players by talking up the 20-game losing streak to Illinois, even though he was only here for three of the defeats.
The Gophers were given their usual ultimatum about playing good defense, too, and both messages sure got across.
Lawrence Westbrook had 10 of his 15 points in the second half, including two crowd-stirring 3-pointers down the stretch, and Minnesota stifled No. 19 Illinois 59-36 on Thursday night for its first victory over the Fighting Illini in 10 years.
"It was kind of embarrassing for a team to beat you that many times," Westbrook said. "Now that we have that monkey off our back, maybe we can start a streak of our own."
Ralph Sampson added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Gophers (18-3, 6-3 Big Ten), who held the brick-laying Illini (17-4, 5-3) to their lowest point total in 24 years and registered the second-lowest score by an opponent in school history. Illinois lost to Purdue 54-34 on Jan. 30, 1985, and Minnesota held Nicholls State to 32 points on Dec. 28, 2007.
"When you play against teams that are above you," Smith said, "then you've got to raise your level of play. So we challenged our guys to play with a real determination tonight."
Dominique Keller had nine points for Illinois, which missed eight straight 3-pointers to start the game and shot 7-for-28 overall in the first half. The Illini, who finished 15-for-51 from the field, were the conference's best shooting team coming into the game.
"They took it to us the entire game," said guard Trent Meacham, who had seven points.
After losing soundly at home to the Big Ten's two other top teams, Michigan State and Purdue, the Gophers gutted out their biggest victory of the conference season by outrebounding the Illini 44-29 and getting a hand in the vicinity nearly every time Illinois shot the ball. This is the kind of win they need to get into the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
"Hopefully we can build off this," Smith said.
Colton Iverson added six points and six rebounds for Minnesota, which still isn't shooting well or establishing a rhythm in the half court. But the Gophers than matched the Big Ten's best defensive team at that end of the court.
"He just guarded us in the half court," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Old-fashioned basketball."
The last time the Gophers beat Illinois was on Feb. 3, 1999, a victory later vacated by the NCAA following the academic fraud scandal that rocked the program a month later. The Illini's mastery of Minnesota was their longest in school history against any opponent.
The Barn was ready for the end of the streak, the students decked out in maroon and gold jumping rhythmically in anticipation of the opening tip and wearing all kinds of crazy outfits. One held up a sign, "Go the way of Blago," trying to taunt the visitors on the day their governor was impeached.
The Illini scored 16 points in the first half, their lowest total in any half this season. It was so loud that after Westbrook wiggled through the Illinois defense to make a difficult reverse layup and give the Gophers a six-point lead, Calvin Brock couldn't hear his teammates telling him the clock was about to run out. Mike Tisdale had to rush a 3-pointer, Illinois' 21st miss from the field in the first half.
"They just wanted it more than we did, and they took it," Brock said. "You've got to give them credit. We came out flat and never got over the hump."
The Illini, who are allowing the fewest points in the Big Ten, stayed well within range because they hounded the Minnesota ballhandlers and wouldn't let them pass inside to Sampson or Iverson. The Gophers couldn't figure out their spacing and made only seven field goals themselves in the first half - five around the basket and two from behind the arc.
Weber said he thought his team was a little intimidated. Once the Gophers built a comfortable lead, their spirit was broken. Once their curl cuts were taken away, the Illini stopped moving as quickly. And they never got it going.
"You feel as low as you can feel," Weber said, adding: "It's a humbler, that's for sure. If it isn't, we're in trouble."