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Illinois extends winning streak to seven games, bests Minnesota

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And now comes a stretch of five ranked opponents over 19 days.

Evan McClintock | The Champaign Room

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — At halftime of Thursday’s affair, the fire alarms inside the State Farm Center went off for roughly a minute — not that either team needed a heat check — before the public address announcer gave Illini faithful, thankfully, the “all clear”.

Both teams struggled through a sluggish start, but Illinois (16-5, 8-2) kept its distance in the second half en route to its seventh straight win as it beat Minnesota (11-10, 5-6) in front of a sold-out crowd, 59-51. With the victory, the Illini move to 12-1 at home this season and are off to their best conference start since 2004-05 (15-0).

“This is absolutely the greatest league in America when it comes to attendance,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “The game is bigger than the game. It’s an event. It was unbelievable to have the Orange Krush back tonight.”

Just like they have much of the conference season, the Illini led the way defensively. Illinois ranks among the top of the conference in opponents’ points per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and most other statistical defensive categories. And on nights like Thursday when the ball wasn’t falling, the defense can be the difference-maker. The Illini held the Gophers to 32.2% shooting, despite going just 21-of-63 from the field themselves.

“It takes everybody, an all-around team effort,” Underwood said. “It wasn’t pretty. We have to find a way to elevate ourselves offensively.”

It was clear after the opening minute that this was going to be a grind-it-out, hard-fought 40 minutes of basketball.

The two teams combined to shoot 18-of-64 (28.1%) from the field in the first half. For the Illini, their two scoring ‘runs’ came from Trent Frazier, who drilled back-to-back deep balls with about eight minutes to go in the half, and Kofi Cockburn, whose five consecutive points gave Illinois a 24-20 lead heading into the break.

Arguably the most important sequence of the game came in the opening minutes of the second half. Cockburn got a tough layup to go over Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, walled him up on the other end of the floor, and then Andres Feliz finished a floater in transition. It might not have seemed like much at the time, but that 6-point swing gave the Illini a much-needed spark and extended their lead to double digits.

Illinois maintained a multiple possession advantage for the majority of the second half until the final minutes. With less than 120 seconds remaining, the Gophers cut the gap to one. Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Ayo Dosunmu each nailed a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch to push Illinois’ lead back to multiple possessions, but it was Da’Monte Williams’ defensive prowess that proved the difference. A steal and a blocked shot on Minnesota’s final two possessions gave Illinois the comfort it needed to close this one out, 59-51.

“Pretty doggone impressive,” Underwood said of Williams’ defense. “He had an unbelievable stretch.”

His message to the team during the win streak?

“Don’t get fat. It’s gotta be every single day, grinding and grinding. My job is to not let them get fat and happy and listen to you guys (in media) and the fans. It’s about us, it’s about that locker room, we’ve got to keep ourselves lean.”

STAT STUFFERS

  • Andres Feliz — 17 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists
  • Kofi Cockburn — 13 points, 10 rebounds
  • Giorgi Bezhanishvili — 6 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists

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HE SAID IT

“When you look at our stat sheets, a lot of times you maybe don’t see the most glaring numbers for Da’Monte [Williams]. Yet, I told him in the locker room, ‘I won’t kiss my wife tonight because I’m going to kiss you.’” — Brad Underwood

TWEET OF THE GAME

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WHO’S NEXT

The Illini hit the road for a top-20 showdown against the No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena next.

The Hawkeyes are winners of five straight heading into Sunday afternoon’s 12 p.m. CT matchup versus Illinois.