Coming off a pair of wins, Gophers have a chance to end another streak

Minnesota had lost six straight games to Northwestern before Wednesday’s win.

Zach Eisendrath

Just days after ending one lengthy losing streak against a Big Ten opponent, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team will try to end an even longer one.

After putting to rest their six-game losing streak against Northwestern on Wednesday, the Gophers will try to end their 16-game losing streak to Illinois at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.

Just like the skid against the Wildcats, sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala and the rest of his teammates are well aware of Minnesota’s troubled history against Illinois.

“That will always be lingering in the back of our minds,” Abu-Shamala said of the losing streak to the Illini. “But we feel we can beat them. And if we just play our game and stay composed down there, we can.”

If the Gophers, who have won back-to-back games for the first time in nearly a month, want to have a legitimate chance to beat Illinois in the hostile environment in Champaign, Minnesota will likely have to rely on making three-pointers.

In their three conference wins, the Gophers (9-13 overall, 3-5 Big Ten) are averaging 9.3 three-pointers per game, while they are connecting on only 3.8 attempts from long range in their five league losses.

But interim coach Jim Molinari downplayed the importance of threes. Molinari said he is far more concerned with how his team performs on the defensive end of the floor.

“We’re keeping our identity,” he said. “The threes are a bonus. We don’t really talk about the threes. We talk about trying to defend.”

When the two teams last met, at Williams Arena on Jan. 17, Minnesota failed to defend early, allowing the Illini (16-8, 4-5) to open with a 13-0 run, which the Gophers never recovered from on their way to a 64-52 loss.

Molinari said he is just hopeful his team will have a chance when the game is in the balance.

And to win their second road game in as many tries, Molinari said his team must take care of the ball, defend the three, play strong transition defense and, lastly, not let the crowd influence his team’s play.

Despite the way the Illini have owned the Gophers as of late, redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton said he is embracing the challenge.

“That’s a great team,” Payton said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. Ö We’re working hard in practice to try and get a win out of this one.”

Payton is eager for good reason. After struggling to find a spot on the floor for more than two months, Payton has established himself as Minnesota’s starting point guard after tallying 15 assists in his last two games, becoming the floor general missing from the team all season.

And with Payton, Abu-Shamala and freshman center Bryce Webster all starting to prove they are legitimate Big Ten players, the Gophers are gaining confidence, according to Molinari.

“I think the world never changes. The Big Ten never changes. You change,” he said. “So maybe we’re changing a little bit.”