Gophers keep tourney hopes alive

Minnesota had to fight off a late Illinois run to beat the Illini, 62-60.

Minnesota forward Damian Johnson (34) grabs a rebound against Illinois forward Mike Tisdale on Saturday at Assembly Hall in Champaign IL.

Minnesota forward Damian Johnson (34) grabs a rebound against Illinois forward Mike Tisdale on Saturday at Assembly Hall in Champaign IL.

Marco LaNave

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. âÄî After another game in which the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team watched its opponent make a second-half rally to close a sizable lead, the players were able to smile on Saturday afternoon. Fortunately for Minnesota, the ending was favorable. This time it was the Gophers defending the gameâÄôs final shot, and it was the Gophers who walked off the floor victorious, while the final buzzer quieted the home crowd. The Gophers watched a 19-point second-half lead shrink to one in the final seven minutes but slipped past Illinois for a 62-60 victory, their first in Champaign in 32 years. They escaped when Illini guard D.J. Richardson missed a last-second fadeaway jumper over Gophers sophomore guard Devoe Joseph, the man who missed a potential game-winner three days earlier against No. 3 Purdue. âÄúWeâÄôve seen it happen too many times,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said of the late-game pressure from a blown lead. âÄúWe work on it; you just hope that guys have learned from that âĦ Today, I think, hopefully, we bridged that gap, and now weâÄôre moving on.âÄù The Gophers won at Illinois for the first time since March 9, 1996 , but that game was later vacated. Their last official victory in Champaign came on Feb. 16, 1978. âÄúWe played in a hostile environment âĦ so itâÄôs definitely a great feeling,âÄù said senior forward Damian Johnson, who had six points and six rebounds. âÄúIâÄôm glad we hung on to it.âÄù The Gophers (17-11, 8-8 Big Ten) kept the crowd of 16,618 at Assembly Hall subdued for nearly the entire first half. They held Illinois (18-11, 10-6) to a season-low 14 first-half points (also a season worst for a Minnesota opponent) on 23 percent shooting. Minnesota built a double-digit lead by showing an inside presence for the fourth-straight game, even against 7-foot-1-inch Illini center Mike Tisdale and 6-foot-9-inch forwards Mike Davis and Bill Cole. The Gophers outscored the Illini 18 to 10 on points in the paint in the first half. They had a 21-16 rebounding advantage and held Big Ten assist leader Demetri McCamey to three in the first half, while his teammates combined for none. âÄúThatâÄôs establishing a defensive pace,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúWe slowed them down; we didnâÄôt let McCamey do whatever he wanted. I think that really affected their whole game.âÄù The Illini missed all 11 of their 3-point attempts in the first half, but Cole made 3-of-4 from long range in the first four minutes of the second half to spark the Illini and their fans. Joseph, who scored all of his game-high 16 points after halftime, helped the Gophers maintain a lead by scoring 11 of their first 12 second-half points. Minnesota appeared to seal the game with a 15-3 run that included six points from freshman forward Rodney Williams, who also tied a career-high with six rebounds. His 3-pointer from the corner that bounced off the rim and glass before going in seemed to be a good omen for his team, considering the IlliniâÄôs brutal shooting day to that point. âÄúI was just glad they went in, because my jump shot has not been falling lately,âÄù said Williams, whose dunk over Tisdale and subsequent free throw put the Gophers up 51-32 with 7:13 remaining. From there, the Illini started chipping away by forcing turnovers and finally making shots, while the Gophers only supported their lead with eight straight free throws. Cole made two 3-pointers to close the gap to 57-52 with 3:04 remaining. He fouled out on the next possession, but Richardson picked up his role by making two 3-pointers to cap a 26-8 run that made it 59-58 with 1:24 to play. The Illini had a chance to take the lead in the final minute, but McCameyâÄôs pass ended up in JohnsonâÄôs hands. The Gophers capitalized when sophomore center Ralph Sampson III found junior forward Paul Carter for a two-handed dunk, the GophersâÄô first field goal in more than six-and-a-half minutes. Joseph later made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 62-58 with 21 seconds remaining. It took three shots for the Illini to score on a layup by Tisdale, and they fouled Sampson with 7.8 seconds remaining. Sampson needed to make two free throws to put the game away. Instead, he missed both, and the Illini raced down the court for one last chance to tie or win the game. After RichardsonâÄôs off-balance shot fell well short at the buzzer, Sampson and the Gophers breathed more easily. âÄúI am glad it didnâÄôt [cost us],âÄù Sampson said. âÄúI wouldâÄôve been sitting there with my head down with a towel [over it].âÄù Smith said his team didnâÄôt play well down the stretch, but he had little trouble settling for a win that keeps MinnesotaâÄôs slim NCAA Tournament hopes from disappearing altogether. âÄúIn any game, I donâÄôt care how you win, itâÄôs a better feeling than the alternative,âÄù Smith said. âÄúIt was good to see our guys âĦ actually able to finalize a game.âÄù