After a morbid first half in which the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-20, 2-14 Big Ten), without a single scholarship guard active, flirted with a double-digit advantage, the Illinois Fighting Illini (13-16, 5-11) unleashed a dominant flurry in the second half to win in blowout fashion, 84-71.
The Gophers started with a flurry of 3-pointers to take a 9-0 lead, and from there, the Illini were held essentially at arm's length for the rest of the half, never gaining traction and going to break down 40-32.
Then halftime happened.
Whether it was Josh Whitman's address to the crowd at State Farm Center in which he posed that Illinois could become the country's top athletic program, or a slickly timed tweet from Peoria Manual prospect Da'Monte Williams in which he announced his commitment to the alma mater of his father — former Illini great Frank Williams — something gave the Illini a new energy coming out of the break.
The Illini blitzed the Gophers to go ahead by as many as 17 before finishing the game with a comfortable 13-point victory.
The burst of intensity was exactly what Illinois fans who hadn't turned to the Oscars or The Walking Dead needed to see. This was an absolute no-brainer win, given the three suspensions Minnesota announced before the game. And I can think of no better way to bounce back from the debacle that was the Indiana game than by essentially doing the same thing to someone else.
Malcolm Hill was the centerpiece for Illinois, with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals. Kendrick Nunn led the game in scoring with 25 points to go with his 5 assists and 4 steals. Jalen Coleman-Lands was instrumental in keeping Illinois in the game early, and finished the game 5-of-6 from three as part of his 18 points.
It was senior night for the Illini, who only had one senior, Khalid Lewis, see action. Lewis scored 7 while notching 4 assists and 2 steals. The Illini had 13 steals, most of which came in the second half and led to transition buckets.
For the Gophers, freshman double-double savant Jordan Murphy made his presence known, especially in the first half. He finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. It was Murphy's third-straight double-double, and he looks like he could be a solid staple for Minnesota these next few years. The Gophers used only one sub in the game.
The Illini got an expected win in a very unexpected fashion, and it was basically just a cherry on top of the news of Williams's commitment. Illinois will try to exactly replicate tonight's second half this Thursday when they head to Maryland, a team that's certainly growing tired of teams having season-defining upsets at its expense. Illinois can only hope there's room for one more on that wagon.
As always, check the GameThread for more.