Gophers hold No. 20 Illinois to 36 points in convincing win

Tubby Smith is known for his defense, and the Gophers have played it well all year long. But none of their first 20 games were quite like Thursday nightâÄôs. They held No. 20 Illinois, which came into the game averaging nearly 70 points per game, to just 36 points in perhaps their most impressive victory of the season, winning 59-36 at Williams Arena. Illinois, who finished the first half with just 16 points, scored less than half of the points they did at the Barn last season (84). âÄú(Under Smith), if you donâÄôt play defense, youâÄôre going to come out,âÄù said junior guard Lawrence Westbrook, who led Minnesota with 15 points. âÄúThat puts the fear in people. ThatâÄôs the key throughout the game.âÄù It was a showcase of how to defend a jump shooting team, with tight perimeter defense and dominant rebounding. The Illini came into the game as the Big TenâÄôs most accurate shooting team, but finished just 24.9 percent from the field (compared to a season average of 47.9). Minnesota outrebounded Illinois 44-to-29. âÄúWeâÄôre a very good defensive team,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe were contesting shots and they didnâÄôt get many open looks. That was the key.âÄù Though much of MinnesotaâÄôs defensive success has come from their full-court trap, Smith stuck faithfully to a half-court defense. It only created nine turnovers and six steals, but kept hands in shootersâÄô faces and often kept Illinois to just one shot per possession. âÄúUsually theyâÄôve been changing defenses but Tubby âĦ was stopping us, so why change it?âÄù Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. âÄúHe just guarded us at half-court. Old-fashioned basketball.âÄù The win ended a daunting streak of 20 straight Illinois wins over the Gophers, dating back to Clem HaskinsâÄô days. Last season, Illinois narrowly knocked the Gophers out of the Big Ten tournament in the semifinals. âÄúIt was big for us because this is our school and weâÄôre part of this tradition,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúItâÄôs kind of embarrassing for a team to beat you that many times. Now that we got that monkey off our back we can start a streak of our own.âÄù The Illini shot a remarkable 50 percent from three-point range in three wins over the Gophers last season, but Minnesota hold them to 0-for-8 in the first half and 2-for-16 in the game. The Gophers led by just nine near the midway point of the second half, quickly built that lead to 18 off of some turnovers and accurate shooting. âÄúThey were missing shots and we played good defense,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúThatâÄôll get to the best of a lot of teams. We knew they were getting tired and worn down.âÄù Ralph Sampson III had a few arching rebounds over 7-foot-1 Illinois center Mike Tisdale, and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. Five different Gophers players had five rebounds or more. The win puts Minnesota at 6-3 in the Big Ten, and 18-3 overall. They now have âÄúsignatureâÄù wins over three top-25 teams — No. 20 Illinois, No. 23 Ohio State and No. 9 Louisville — as well as a win over Wisconsin on the road. Those are increasingly impressive credentials for the NCAA selection committee come March. âÄúWe think about that a lot,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúObviously you take it one game at a time, but last year one of our main problems was we didnâÄôt get enough signature wins. We let some games slip away against ranked teams. But theyâÄôre ranked twentieth and we beat them.”