Gophers pull away to defeat Illinois 86-75

Minnesota rode a strong second half to victory.

Senior Jordan Murphy winds up for the tomahawk dunk at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Tony Saunders

Senior Jordan Murphy winds up for the tomahawk dunk at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Nick Jungheim

Two weeks ago, Minnesota lost to Illinois 95-68 in what was the Fighting Illini’s first Big Ten victory. On Wednesday night, the Gophers made sure Illinois’ first true-road victory didn’t come at Williams Arena.

Despite the record-breaking cold outside, 9,565 fans showed up to watch a red-hot performance from the Gophers in the second half. Minnesota (16-5, 6-4 Big Ten) avenged its loss to Illinois (6-15, 2-8 Big Ten) on Jan. 16, riding a dominant second half to a 86-75 victory.

“We played really well offensively,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “We scrapped the playbook and went five-out motion to get some more movement. I didn’t like what I did the first time we played them, clearly. I thought our guys adjusted well to that, made some big plays.”

The Fighting Illini scored the game’s first five points and hit a pair of free throws to make the score 7-2, but that was the largest lead either team held in the first half. Minnesota took its first lead at 23-21 on a layup from sophomore Isaiah Washington, but from there the lead changed hands seven more times before intermission.

In the second half, the Gophers began to seize momentum. After falling behind 47-42, a 13-1 run gave Minnesota a 55-48 lead. Washington and freshman Gabe Kalscheur hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to give the Gophers a wider margin. Illinois tied it with a free throw but Minnesota scored the next seven points over a 1:39 stretch.

“It gave us a lot more momentum.” Kalscheur said of his 3-pointer.  “When we went over there, they really beat on us.  When they came here, we had to finish strong.”

From that point, Minnesota maintained total control of the game. The Gophers continued to increase their lead, pushing it to as many as 17 points with 3:58 to play. The score tightened only slightly in the final minutes, but never again within 11 points.

Five Gophers’ players scored in double-figures. Leading them was junior Amir Coffey with 18 points to go along with six assists, which also led the team. Senior Jordan Murphy posted his 14th double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds.  

Washington had one of his strongest performances of the year, leading the team with a plus-minus rating of +16. Freshmen Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu rounded out the double-digit scorers with 14 and 11 points respectively.

“I played a lot more poised today,”  Washington said. “Just let the game come to me and my teammates were picking me up so it was a good experience.”

Illinois sophomore Trent Frazier impressed in defeat. He led all scorers with 30 points, on 10-14 shooting, including five 3-pointers. Frazier didn’t receive much help from his teammates however. Freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who combined for 43 points in their last game against the Gophers, combined for just 15 on Wednesday.

“I thought we played much better defense in the second half.”  Pitino said.  “Besides Frazier, I thought we did a good job on [Dosunmu], we did a good job on [Bezhanishvili].”

Minnesota’s schedule will increase in difficulty considerably over the next month. The team plays next on Sunday in a road contest against Purdue.