For the first time since 1996, the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball team has went on the road and beat Illinois. It wasn't easy, even if the Gophers dominated the first 33 minutes.
The Gophers prevailed 62-60 as the Illini missed a tough shot as time expired. But it really didn't need to be that close. Minnesota built a double-digit first half lead thanks to solid interior scoring and a 2-3 zone on defense that forced Demetri McCamey into contested outside shots and made Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale largely irrelevant. The Illini were so bad on offense in the first have they mustered just 14 first half points.
Minnesota's lead balloned to 19 early in the second half as the Gophers continued to move well on offense and find ways to score inside. And then all of a sudden everything changed.
Instead of attacking on offense, the Gophers went stagnant. Illinois began pressuring the Gophers full-court, and while the Illini were the beneficiaries of some non-calls, the Gophers began to play sloppy. They also began to start trying to draw down the clock far too early and look to Lawrence Westbrook or Devoe Joseph to create something off the dribble as the shot clock clicked away. Instead of going back inside where Minnesota had found success, the Gophers were happy to play ball control.
All of that allowed Illinois to take a 19 point second half deficit and cut MInnesota's lead to 1 with under 1 minute to play. Illinois' Bill Cole deserves considerable credit for the Illini's comeback, as he hit 5 second half three pointers. That burst from Cole helped Illinois score 46 second half points.
But it was MInnesota that came out with the victory as Tubby Smith's team kept its slim NCAA hopes alive. There were a bunch of positive individual performances. Devoe Joseph played well at the point and was able to lead the team for most of the game while also finding his own offense. He finished with a team-high 16. Damian Johnson came up with a big steam and a bit assist at the end of the game to help put the Gophers over the top. Paul Carter came off the bench for 23 solid minutes. He finished with 10 points and 4 rebounds.
One game after Ralph Sampson III was light's out against Purdue, the big man wasn't quite the same on the road. He missed two crucial free throws at the end of the game that could have pushed Minnesota's lead to 4, and he didn't get the opportunities in the post like he had against Purdue. He did lead the team with 7 rebounds.
Freshman Rodney Williams might have had his best game as a Gopher. He played 16 impactful minutes. He scored on an in-bounds play. He used his athleticism to slam one home over Tisdale for a three-point play and he grabbed 6 rebounds. No doubt about it, Williams helped Minnesota pull off this road win.
While Illinois second half surge clouds it somewhat, Minnesota did do a very good job shutting down Illinois' big three. McCamey was 1-2 from three and finished with just 9 points. Davis was 4-11 and finished with 10 (though he also had 12 boards) and Tisdale was just 3-10 for 6 points. That lack of production was a byproduct of Minnesota's 2-3 zone which forced Tisdale and Davis away from the basket and cut driving lanes away from McCamey. While I didn't like Coach Smith's decisions at the end of the game, his decision to go to the 2-3 zone, a different look than the 3-2 zone that they've been playing to some success, worked very well.
All in all this is a very good road win. The Gophers haven't had many of those this season and I don't remember the last time this team won at Illinois. I was a teenager.
So, while it wasn't pretty at the end, let's enjoy this one.