As Illinois welcomes Minnesota to State Farm Center, we take a moment to remember that Tuesday night on Jan. 14, 1997, almost 22 years to the day when unranked Illinois triumphed over No. 7 Minnesota, 96-90, in Champaign.
The 1996-97 Minnesota Golden Gophers team was a once-in-a-generation type of team — equivalent in some sense (at least to Minnesota fans) to the 2004-05 Illinois Fighting Illini team that reached the Final Four.
1996-97 Illinois Fighting Illini
This was a transition year for Illinois. Lon Kruger was in his first year as head coach of the Fighting Illini, replacing the legendary Lou Henson, who had been at Illinois 21 years. Henson left Kruger a stacked roster that helped ease Illinois Basketball into a new era.
A huge part of what made this team successful (22-10, 4th place Big Ten, No. 6 seed in NCAA Tournament) in Kruger’s first season was the return of star player Kiwane Garris — a four-year starter at Illinois who is widely considered one of the greatest players to ever don the Illinois uniform.
Garris was the only player who’d go on to play in the NBA from this roster, however, other upperclassmen, including Chris Gandy, Kevin Turner and Matt Heldman, each averaged 10+ points per game.
1996-97 Minnesota Golden Gophers
A season Minnesota basketball fans will never forget, despite a particular governing body wiping much of that season, particularly the postseason off of the record books. Minnesota went 31-4 in totality, which is now relegated to 27-3. The NCAA does not count Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament run where the Gophers claimed a No. 1 seed and beat Texas State, Temple, Clemson and UCLA before falling to Kentucky in the Final Four.
For more details on the academic scandal that rocked the Golden Gophers basketball program, read this.
That year, Minnesota was led by senior point guard Bobby Jackson, a player who stuffed the box score game after game and who was once a transfer from Western Nebraska Community College. Jackson was fourth in the Big Ten in points, fifth in assists, first in steals and winner of the 1996-97 Big Ten Player of the Year Award.
Jackson would go on to have a 13-year NBA career. Most fans remember him most from his five seasons as a member of the Sacramento Kings from 2000-05. Jackson won NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2002-03.
The Game: Illinois 96, Minnesota 90
Senior Chris Gandy hit a three-pointer with just over three minutes left in the game to put the Illini up 84-82. The Illini, who were down most of the game, would hold that lead and extend it by making some critical throws down the stretch to win 96-90.
Three of Minnesota’s players would foul out in the waning couple minutes of the game: Russ Archambault, Quincy Lewis and Sam Jacobson.*
These two teams would have a rematch the following month, with the Gophers getting revenge 67-66 at The Barn.
*Help and credit to the Washington Post for their recap.
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