CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It wasn’t necessarily impressive, but a win is a win in late February.
Just a mere two days after RJ Melendez seemed like he had no confidence in himself — and missing a potential game-tying shot in the loss to Indiana — he turns around and posts his first-career double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) as Illinois snapped a two-game skid and beat lowly Minnesota, 78-69.
Originally scheduled for Feb. 7, issues related to COVID-19 in the Gophers program caused the contest be moved to Monday night at State Farm Center, the second of four games in nine days for the Illini.
The first half felt very reminiscent of the previous matchup between the two earlier this season in Minneapolis, where it felt like Illinois could start pouring it on but never did. Both teams made 13 field goals, but a key difference was Illinois hitting three shots from deep, while Minnesota only hit one.
But also in similar fashion to the first meeting, Illinois (18-9, 9-7 Big Ten) finally started to pour it on right out the gates in the second half, proving why they are a second-half team.
Led behind a 8-0 Jayden Epps run, Illinois was able to get up by 14 points. To keep a long story short, Illinois nearly kept a double-digit lead on Minnesota (7-18, 1-14 Big Ten) the rest of the way.
All starters posted double-digit points. Leading the way was Matthew Mayer once again with 22, as Jayden Epps and Coleman Hawkins followed closely in suit with 17 and 16 points respectively.
The win puts Illinois in an odd situation — a five-way tie for fourth in the conference, with the all-important double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament still within reach.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
JAYDEN (8-0) EPPS: Jayden Epps led an 8-0 run out of halftime to give the Illini a 14 point lead early in the second half. The freshman hit two three’s and a layup on the first three possessions of the half.
RJ MELENDEZ THREE: RJ Melendez had played like he’s had no confidence lately. He hit his first three-pointer in an important moment in what felt like a long time. Melendez hit a three against Penn State, but it was not necessarily as prominent as this one was since he had the home crowd erupt after the ball went through the net.
GOPHER TRIO: Only three Gophers scored in the first half. Dawson Garcia, Jamison Battle and Joshua Ola-Joseph combined for all 29 Minnesota points. Garcia led the way with 12.
JAMISON BATTLE: This guy did it all for the Gophers on Monday. He scored 31 points on 11-20 shooting and notched in four shots from deep.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
This whole sequence.
WIDE OPEN FOR @MelendezRamses @IlliniMBB pic.twitter.com/X0dR1rJmXF— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) February 21, 2023
We’re all friends at the end of the day!
, ?@GopherMBB's @CoachBenJohnson made this @IlliniMBB fan's day. pic.twitter.com/EMz3eOARGb— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 21, 2023
- Illinois has won their sixth game in a row against Minnesota.
- Illinois improves to 75-19 in the all-time series.
TWEET OF THE GAME
the hero we deserve: https://t.co/Ka5nLQ3Hqi— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 21, 2023
Illinois will look to avenge their earlier loss to in-state rival No. 21 Northwestern on Thursday night.
Tipoff against the Wildcats is at 8 p.m. and will air on BTN.