Gophers hoping losing streak to Illinois ends at 20

Gophers vs. Bowling Green 

Gophers win 61-68

Matt Mead

Gophers vs. Bowling Green Gophers win 61-68

It’s one of the foremost skeletons in the Gophers’ closet, and it sees the light of day at least once or twice a year: the Illinois streak. The Gophers havenâÄôt beaten Illinois in nearly a decade (just a week short), dating back to the Clem Haskins academic scandal days. Illinois has won 20 straight times going into tonightâÄôs 8 p.m. game at Williams Arena. âÄúItâÄôs a team we havenâÄôt had any success against in the last, I donâÄôt know how many years,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôve had our number, and weâÄôve had some pretty, um, interesting practices to prepare.âÄù Minnesota’s last actual win over Illinois came Feb. 3, 1999, when Quincy Lewis scored 28 points to help the No. 18 Gophers. That game, along with a handful of their other Illinois wins between 1993 and 1999, were wiped out because of the aforementioned scandal. Minnesota’s last official win came March 3, 1993, at home. âÄúThis is the most important game for us, right now,âÄù junior guard Lawrence Westbrook said. âÄúTheyâÄôve beaten us 20 times in a row, and thatâÄôs an embarrassing streak.âÄù No time seemed better to break the streak than last year’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal game. The Gophers had come back from a 16-point deficit against Northwestern in the opening round and had beaten Indiana in the quarterfinals on Blake Hoffarber’s miraculous, buzzer-beating, left-handed shot. But even with more momentum than they’d had in years, they lost 54-50 and headed for the National Invitational Tournament. This season, they don’t have any buzzer beaters to feed off of. The Gophers have lost two of their past three, which included an upset at the hands of Northwestern and a narrow road win over last-place Indiana. Ahead of them are tough road games against No. 9 Michigan State and Ohio State. And what once looked like a fairly winnable game against the Illini has turned into a toss-up, at best. Pegged by most to finish middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten, Illinois is coming off of comfortable wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State. TheyâÄôve risen to No. 19 in the country and are one of three teams in the conference with two or fewer losses. âÄúYou have to just forget about that streak,âÄù sophomore guard Al Nolen Jr. said. âÄúWeâÄôve gotta prepare for them, because theyâÄôre really on a roll right now.âÄù Tall and lanky like the Gophers, Illinois has taken on a new identity after finishing 13-18 last season. No player is averaging more than 13 points per game, but four players are averaging double digits, making them one of the most balanced scoring teams in the nation. âÄú(Illinois coach) Bruce Weber has done a fantastic job,âÄù Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôve probably made as big of a turnaround as anyone in the country.âÄù