The Golden Gophers came into a Thursday night tilt fighting some ugly history and walked out of Williams Arena having created some history that will make Illinois fans cringe for years to come.
After falling to Illinois 20 straight times, Tubby Smith's Gophers suffocated the Illini offense, holding their opponent to an embarrassingly low 36 points en route to an easy win over a team that finds itself in the country's top 20 and the Big Ten's top echelon.
Let's say that one more time so it sinks in. The Gophers held the Illini to 36 points, the lowest output for that program since 1985. The Gophers did this by forcing a team that shoots 48 percent on the year to only 29 percent. The Gophers had a hand in every jump shot. They cut off driving lanes. They played help defense with gusto and rotated quickly and efficiently when Illinois moved the ball. Illlinois had no inside game and no outside game. The Gophers shut everything down.
That included Illinois' touted sophomore big men Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Both were out-muscled and out-worked for 40 minutes by the Tubby Towers of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. RSIII had his second consecutive almost-dominant game, scoring 10 points inside, grabbing a team-high 7 rebounds (three offensive) and showing a deft passing ability with three assists. Perhaps most impressively for Minnesota, Sampson got to the chairty stripe, where he convereted 8 of 10 times. Iverson did his work as well, scoring 6 points inside while grabbing 6 rebounds.
The Iverson-Sampson duo helped Minnesota throttle Illinois on the glass--44 to 29. Minnesota's second chance opportunities were almost double. The Gophers had 15 offensive rebounds. Illinois had 8. That happens for a few reasons: physicality, positioning and, as Tubby said after the Michigan State loss, want-to.
Lawrence Westbrook certainly wanted to Thursday night. His 15 points led all scoreres and his 6-for-9 shooting night and clutch trigger was a catalyst. Westbrook also did the little things, grabbing 6 rebounds, adding two assists and a steal, with only one turnover.
The first half was marked by its low-scoring nature. But it wasn't easy to tell if it was all around good defense--we could see some of that--or a mixutre of tough defense and really poor offense. Minnesota's 22-16 halftime lead seemed a little dicey. Surely, Illinois would catch a hot streak at some point.
Surprisingly, the Gophers did this without forcing turnovers many more turnovers than the Illini (10 to 9). But the difference was simple man-to-man half-court defense. And this is no small feat. This isn't like holding Burnsville High School to a low shooting percentage. The illini lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage. The Illini lead the conference in assists. That combination means the Illini typically move the ball well and find good shots. Minnesota didn't allow that Thursday night and laughed their way out of Williams Arena.
A few other thoughts/observations.
- Travis Busch played one minute. This shouldn't be a surprise. The Gophers were winning the toughness battle, and that's usually what Tubby looks for him to do.
- Tubby started both Colt 45 and RSIII, and then for periods used them to spell each other. They were good on the floor together last night, but having one or the other on the floor at all times seems to be the best approach.
- Another amazing stat about the Gophers defense was its lack of fouls. Yes, we were at home, but playing that sort of aggressive man defense usually results in some foul trouble. The Gophers had none. They weren't reaching. They committed just 10 fouls to Illinois' 19.
- Down with Goldy is in love with RSIII and having a nickname contest for him. RSII has been a very pleasant surprise the last two games, but the kid has a ways to go. He can eventually be a dominant Big Ten center.
- RSIII Prediction: Some day soon he's going to lead the team in assists for a game.
- The point guard play was mostly solid. Devoe Joseph was composed in the back-up role.
Up Next: The Gophers have about a week off before travelling to East Lansing for a tilt with Michigan State. That's part of a two game road swing that will end next weekend in Columbus. We should be quite pleased if the Gophes split those two games.