With a two-game home win streak under their belt, a .500 record in the Big Ten and a legitimate chance to beat a team that they hadn’t in this century, the Gophers were given a golden opportunity to use their new-found momentum to set the tone early against the Illini on Tuesday.
But from the opening tip, the Illinois players came out with more energy and firepower than Minnesota. Not only that, but the two rows of Illini-faithful in the second deck also showed more spunk than Tuesday night’s Gophers student section.
More often than not, the 100 or-so orange T-shirt-sporting fans in the upper deck outcheered the “Barnyard” student section, especially when the majority of them left late in the second half of Minnesota’s 84-60 loss to Illinois.
“The orange crush, you gotta give them a lot of credit,” Illini head coach Bruce Weber said about the Illinois student section. “I think they gave us a big boost tonight.”
One of the few loud cheers of the night for Gophers fans came when a man donning the look of Santa Claus came onto the court for a trivia question, and the students responded by chanting “we love Santa.”
And as the blowout game neared a close, the Illinois fans were still standing while Minnesota’s fans were barely even sitting. They weren’t sitting in Williams Arena, at least.
“This is one of those nights, fellas,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. “There isn’t much to say. It’s obvious that we were overmatched, and we backed down.”
Part of the reason the Illini fans were loud was because they had something to cheer about. Illinois used a well-balanced attack of strong post-play and sharp three-point shooting to thwart the Gophers’ pursuit of a three-game win streak.
Senior center Shaun Pruitt, who leads the Illini in both scoring and rebounding, had his way inside with Minnesota’s post players. Pruitt’s 6-foot-10-inch athletic frame was too much to handle for the Gophers.
“Our defense sucked all day,” Smith said. “We haven’t played good defense in quite some time to be honest with you.”
Thanks to Pruitt, 7-foot-1-inch freshman center Mike Tisdale, 6-foot-8-inch junior forward Brian Randle, and Illinois’ six other players that are 6-foot-7-inches or taller, the Gophers were altogether outmatched on the interior.
The Gophers, who have four players 6-feet-7-inches or taller, got even smaller when 6-foot-9-inch senior forward Dan Coleman was taken out with four fouls at the 13:35 mark in the second half.
“We didn’t get enough out of our front-court people,” Smith said. “We’ve got to do a better job there and get more aggressive.”
After the Illini’s big men got established down low, they were able to kick the ball out to junior guard Trent Meacham for nearly uncontested three-point shots.
Meacham finished the game a perfect 5-of-5 from three-point territory and 6-of-7 from the field for a game-high 19 points.
“Meacham stepped up and hit a couple of big threes,” senior center Spencer Tollackson said. “When they are just sitting there making and-ones and making threes, it’s hard to win.”
The real air-apparent
Many people prophesy about the next Michael Jordan of basketball. He may have shown up at Williams Arena on Tuesday.
Jeff Jordan, a freshman guard at Illinois, is the son of Michael Jordan. The younger Jordan, who wears No. 13 instead of No. 23, scored just one point in 11 minutes of play.