Ding dong the witch is dead!
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, on the backs of strong second half play from point guard Nate Mason and center Reggie Lynch and playing away from home, finally ended their conference losing streak with a gutty 68-59 victory over the Illinois FIghting Illini.
The first half was an ugly affair for both sides with Minnesota shooting 30% from the field and Illinois responding with 43%. Both teams were guilty of some less than stellar attempts from their offenses with the backboards being in danger of breaking from the strength of the bricks thrown up on both sides of the court. Eventually, the offenses recovered from a startlingly bad beginning and the game found some flow.
Illinois sophomore Kipper Nichols went 5-5 (2-2 from 3-pt land) in the first half, including the classic “bank shot from the elbow and-one”. This compensated for the fact that Illinois leading scorer Malcolm Hill picked up two fouls and didn’t play much in the first half. Mason and sophomore forward Jordan Murphy continued to struggle in the first half of games, going a combined 1-7 from the field. Nate especially hurt the team with two fouls, no assists, and one turnover. Those aren’t the kind of numbers you want to see from a two-year starter and team leader playing away from home.
Senior transfer shooting guard Akeem Springs was once again the saving grace for the Gophers, especially on offense, going 3-6 from behind the arc and chipping in three rebounds while totaling 11 points.
A possible turning point in the game came around 4:25 in the first half. With the score tied 25-25, Hill deferred a screen at the top of the arc, blazed by Minnesota freshman guard Amir Coffey and looked as if he was going to throw down a thunderous dunk. Enter the long arm of the Lynch. Reggie made a fantastic block with his weak hand, avoiding any body contact and cleanly swatting the shot into the hands of sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer, who started a fast break which led to a layup.
The beginning of the second half saw Mason come alive from all areas on the offensive side of the court. He made driving layups, short jumpers in the middle while breaking the sporadically deployed zone of the Illini, and three-pointers. In addition, the man who doesn’t have Big Ten talent on the offensive side of the ball, Reggie Lynch, dazzled with an array of post moves and dunks, racking up eight points in the first eight minutes of the half.
The Gophers then had several consecutive possessions of spectacular defense, with freshman Coffey forcing Hill into a traveling turnover after staying in front with fantastic footwork and the whole team contributing to a well-defended possession that led to a shot clock violation for the Illini. The field goal-less streak for Illinois reached five-plus minutes of game time during the middle of the second half. During this time, Minnesota was able to expand their lead to 13 points.
The aforementioned drought from the field would last a total of six minutes and 25 seconds for the Illini. But then they made the inevitable push Gopher fans have been accustom to seeing their team allow. After some physical play and some mid-range jumpers from Illini forward Maverick Morgan, the once robust Minnesota lead had dwindled to a tenuous six points, 62-56.
After missing the front end of a one-and-one, Springs instigated the sealing sequence of the game. While Kipper Nichols had been the story of the first half, he attempted a drive on the ensuing Illinois possession that was silenced by a great Springs recovery block and recovery. The Gophers came down, wasted clock and Nate Mason made nifty drive and look off to Springs, ever the threat from three point range, to drive to the basket unabated for a layup and an eight point Minnesota lead with two minutes remaining. When Coffey knocked down two free throws after an Illini miss, the game was all but settled.
The dreaded losing streak had finally ended and the Gophers now head back to the Barn with five of their remaining nine games at home with seven looking like extremely winnable games.
- The starting lineup, minus Murphy, had a balanced scoring attack to lead an offense, that at times, looked serviceable, and at others looked atrocious. That is to say, what we’ve come accustom to seeing from this iteration of Golden Gopher basketball.
- Mason laid a turd in the first half but came through when the money was on the line in the second. He looked great initiating the offense in the later part of the game and clinched it with several cool-headed plays.
- Springs once again saved the day when other Gophers were severely lacking on both sides of the floor. He scored 14 points and had 6 rebounds when all was said and done, including a deep three-pointer than staved off a vicious Illini rally when their crowd was sensing a Minnesota collapse.