Men’s hoops seeks revenge on Illinois

Todd Zolecki

Long before the Gophers men’s basketball team became involved in magic numbers and title countdowns, it circled Saturday’s game against No. 23 Illinois on its calendar.
Not because No. 2 Minnesota is a bitter rival of Illinois — a win over Indiana or Michigan would bring more joy — but because it can redeem itself from its Jan. 14, 96-90 loss to the Illini on the road.
“It’s payback time against the team that beat us and caused our only loss in the Big Ten,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said.
Minnesota is 23-2 overall and 12-1 in the conference, the only blemish on its Big Ten record coming from that game. But beside avenging that loss, the Gophers can clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title if they win Saturday.
Minnesota’s magic number is two, which means it needs to win two games to win the title outright.
The memories still linger from that loss. Eric Harris played 21 minutes, most of which were hindered by foul trouble. Charles Thomas sat at home, nursing a sore back, and the typically stingy Gophers defense allowed 96 points. By game’s end, Harris, Sam Jacobson, Quincy Lewis and Russ Archambault had all fouled out.
The smaller Illinois lineup gave Minnesota problems. Illini guard Kevin Turner scored a career-high 24 points, making five 3-pointers from the left corner. As a whole, Illinois made 50 percent of its 3-point shots (11-for-22), a clip good enough to put away most teams.
When the Gophers relive their experience at Assembly Hall, the first thing that comes up is the way the Illini shot the ball. Besides Turner, point guard Kiwane Garris hit 13-of-14 free throws and finished with 24 points. As a team, Illinois shot 48 percent.
Since that game, the Illini have shot 35.6 percent from 3-point range, including a game against Wisconsin when they went 3-for-33 from that distance.
But Illinois believes it can shoot the lights out again and spoil a mini-celebration on the Williams Arena floor.
“We’re going to go in believing that we can win,” Illinois forward Chris Gandy said. “We just have to be more aggressive than they are. We beat them once already this year.”
Plus, it’s never fun to be the team that lost the game that gave the other team the Big Ten title.
“I don’t want them celebrating against me,” Illinois guard Brian Johnson said.
Gophers forward Courtney James said, win or lose, the Gophers won’t be all smiles — kicking back waiting for the rings to come — until they win the title outright. A tie for first is no good.
“When we win it by ourselves, that’s when we’ll celebrate,” he said. “This is the Big Ten and anything can happen in three weeks.”
The Gophers said they’ll need to play with more emotion, unlike their lackadaisical effort against Ohio State on Wednesday night. Minnesota won, 60-48, but didn’t play with the intensity that had put them in first place.
“It’s a very big game for us,” Haskins said. “(Illinois) is a very good team. They have a chance to get into postseason play. They’re still in contention for the Big Ten title.
“We’re the guys that are favored. And being favored, we cannot approach the game like we approached it (Wednesday). But also, I’m realistic to know young people deserve to have a bad night, so I’m not going to hold that against them.”
Players said they looked ahead of the Buckeyes, eyeing Saturday’s game.