Gophers overwhelmed 89-66 by Illinois’ top-ranked talent

Bob Wothe

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – With 11:25 left in Saturday’s game against Minnesota’s men’s basketball team, Illinois guard Dee Brown took some time out to toss a promotional T-shirt into the crowd.

And why not – No. 1 Illinois (21-0, 7-0 Big Ten) jumped out to an early 29-12 lead and never looked back, keeping Minnesota (14-6, 4-3) at a safe distance the rest of the way as it cruised to an 89-66 victory in its “Centennial Game,” which celebrated 100 years of Illini basketball.

“I just thought we lost control of the game defensively,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “They’re so explosive offensively, and we were too reactive early.”

Indeed, the Illini controlled every aspect of the game early as they cruised to the blowout. Illinois connected on a blistering 60 percent of its first-half shots and only cooled slightly in the second half, closing the game at a 55.9 percent clip.

But it wasn’t just hot shooting the Illini relied on; they also outrebounded the Gophers’ 35-30 and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.62:1 compared to Minnesota’s flat ratio of 1:1.

In short, it was the dominating performance that one might expect from the No. 1 team in the nation.

“They just play really good ball; that’s all you can really say,” said Aaron Robinson, who connected on just 1-of-6 shots and looked flustered by the quick Illinois guards. “They made everything hard on us, rebounded well and got us frustrated.”

Although few Gophers players seriously entertained the notion of upsetting the top-ranked Illini on their home floor, the entire squad was disappointed in the way it lost.

“We let them throw the first punch, and we couldn’t fight back,” said Brent Lawson, who finished with just two points. “We didn’t come out and play tough enough.”

But for all of the talk about a lack of toughness after the game, this contest was mainly about one thing – pure firepower from Illinois.

The Illini hit seven of 11 three-pointers in the first half, with Deron Williams hitting three of four on his way to an 18-point night.

And it came against a Gophers squad that had led the Big Ten in three-point field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 20 percent from behind the arc.

In the end, the opening burst from Illinois was far too much for Minnesota to recover from.

After a brief 7-0 run by the Gophers to bring the game within 10, the Illini reasserted themselves and closed the first half leading 47-26.

The game was never closer than 16 in the second half.

“For us to win this game, we needed to gain confidence as the game went on,” Monson said. “We never got that confidence, because we just couldn’t stop them.”

All in all, for a team that prides itself on winning ugly, Illinois – even Brown’s throwing motion – looked far too pretty for Minnesota to even stay close Saturday.

“Every one of their players is just really good,” Lawson said. “You can watch them on tape, but until you get on the court, you don’t know how good they really are.”