CHAMPAIGN Minnesota handed Illinois its first loss to a Top 10 team this season with an 84-67 drubbing at Assembly Hall. To say nothing went Illinois way on Wednesday would sell the Golden Gophers short, however.
No. 8 Minnesota (15-1, 3-0) received outstanding contributions from Joe Coleman -- who had a career high 29 points -- Trevor Mbakwe -- who had a double-double (19 points, 11 rebs) -- and Andre Hollins (22 points). Together, those three accounted for 83 percent of Minnesotas scoring total, which drew praise from Illinois (14-3, 1-2) coach John Groce.
They made play after play, after play, after play. Gotta give them a lot of credit. They got usColeman, Mbakwe and Hollins made a lot of plays, Groce said.
Unlike after Illinois loss to Purdue, though, Groce had no problems with his teams toughness on the floor. He credited Minnesota for taking the 12th-ranked Illini out of their game and making them take contested shots.
We played our butts off, but our execution was awful. When you play a team as good as them, thats what will happen, he said. When you dont execute, good teams make you pay.
Tracy Abrams echoed his coach, citing execution as Illinois downfall. When asked if Minnesota had the best defense hes seen this year, the guard replied simply with a "no."
All the mistakes we made are what cost us, Abrams said.
But there were few mistakes early on for Illinois, and Brandon Paul got the home crowd revved up with a poster dunk on Mbakwe to put Illinois up 4-1 on the Gophers. That was one of the few highlights early in the game, as the defenses did battle for the next 10 minutes. The Illini held firm to the the lead over that stretch, however, owning a 16-11 advantage midway through the first half.
Once Minnesota got in rhythm on the defense, it started to eat away at Illinois lead, though. Over a six-plus-minute span, from 10:46 to 4:28, the Gophers shut down the Illini, going on a 14-3 run and taking over the lead with a dunk from Joe Coleman at 6:04.
The Gophers were solid defensively all game, holding Illinois to just two field goals in the final 10:46 of the first half threes from Paul and Joseph Bertrand. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith placed credit for the win on his teams defense.
We tried to keep them off balance by changing our defenses and I thought that was really beneficial, he said. All night long, we were challenging and contesting shots.
The stingy Minnesota defense forced the Illini to hold on to the ball longer than in previous contests. That led to more off balance or bad shots. The Illini shot 35 percent from the field for the game, but just 12.5 percent from the behind the three point line.
The toughness of the Gophers, though, was something Illinois simply needed to overcome, center Nnanna Egwu said.
It was physical, but thats the way it is in the B1Gevery game is going to be like that, there isnt going to be a game thats easy, he said.
Free throws were the saving grace for Illinois in the first. The Illini finished the half 11-of-12 from the line, which helped them keep their deficit to just four, 34-30, at halftime.
After the break, the Gophers continued to put pressure on Illinois, causing the hosts to look out of sorts. Egwus long two from the baseline was Illinois first field goal of the half, and just the third in 14 minutes, coming three minutes into the second. Illinois racked up four fouls in the first six minutes of the half, though, bringing the total of players with two or more fouls to five with 14 to play.
The fans in Champaign did not appreciate the referees decisions on the fouls and let their opinion be known. The boos quickly turned to thunderous applause, however, as Sam McLaurin and Abrams went to the lane to give Illinois a brief 6-0 run. Abrams second layup, coming at 14:10, brought the applause to its highest volume yet, forcing Minnesota coach Tubby Smith to take a timeout to quiet things down.
Smiths gambit didn't work, however, as the crowd nearly lifted the roof off the Assembly Hall when McLaurin stole the inbounds and Abrams hit a float to bring the score to 44-40 at 12:30.
Bertrands rebound and jumper one minute later brought Illinois within two points, but Coleman slammed home a dunk right after to put Minnesota four clear once more. A pair of free throws (off an intentional foul on Bertrand) followed by a three from Andre Hollins gave the Gophers a nine-point edge in short order.
D.J. Richardson took a turn at keeping the Illini in the contest after that. The senior capped a 5-0 run from the Illini with a steal and a layup, making it 51-47. Richardson and Abrams each finished the game with 14 points.
Immediately after Richardsons layup, Coleman stepped up and hit a three to put the lead at seven with 9:42. Minnesota continued to play well after that, going on an 11-2 run to go 13 points clear at 6:15, 62-49. With a comfortable lead, the Gophers just kept plugging away. Illinois never came within 10 points of the lead again.
Paul finished the game as Illinois top scorer, netting 21 points. Egwu had eight points and nine rebounds in the loss. One player absent on the score sheet, however, was Tyler Griffey.
The senior, who started the season shooting above 30 percent on threes and averaging in double digits for scoring, looked tentative with the ball in his hands and took just three shots on the night. Groce said he would like to see his starting forward attempting more to gain back some of his confidence.
I was disappointed Tyler turned down shots, I want him to take them even he misses them, he said. Griffs got to do a little better job changing speed and making cutsbut I just want to see him taking shots.
Taking shots was no problem for Minnesota, as the Gophers finished the game shooting an astounding 52.9 percent from the field, including 9-of-15 (60 percent) from behind the three-point line. Illinois did manage to hold the guests to just seven offensive rebounds, 10 offensive rebounds off their season average. The strong rebounding performance by the Illini was one of the few bright spots for Groce after the game.
Before the game, if you would have told me wed win the possession battle and get 20 out of 27 rebounds back, Id have told you we won, he said. It was a strange game.
Illinois will try to rebound from the loss on Saturday in Madison against Wisconsin. Tip-off is at 1:15 p.m. and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.