Gophers to play last home game

C.J. Spang

For the second and final time this season, all five seniors on Minnesota’s men’s basketball team will take the court together.

The first time was late in the second half against Michigan State, and the final time will be at the start of today’s 8 p.m. game against Illinois at Williams Arena.

“They’ve had different paths to travel and it’s been a little different; every year is different,” coach Dan Monson said. “But as they try to create a legacy, I’m hoping that they can build off of this last month of what they’ve brought to this program.”

The Gophers’ (14-11, 5-9 Big Ten) recent success includes wins in four of their past six games, with three of those wins coming against top 20 teams.

And with the 10th-ranked Illini coming to town, the team hopes to knock off its fourth-straight ranked opponent at home.

But there is more to it than just knocking off a ranked team. There is the feeling that the team needs to send those seniors out with a win.

“The whole team has that focus where these guys have worked so hard they’re whole careers and everybody’s going to put out their maximum effort tomorrow,” freshman guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said. “You can sense it from the guys and you hear guys talking. It’s definitely going to be the best effort from all the guys.”

Minnesota’s best effort would mean playing better defense than it did Sunday when Wisconsin scored 80 points against the Gophers defense.

Illinois (23-5, 9-5 Big Ten) torched Minnesota’s defense the last time the teams played, as the Illini rolled to a 24-point victory, 77-53, at Assembly Hall on Jan. 25.

In that game, senior guard Dee Brown and senior forward James Augustine were instrumental in the win, scoring 17 and 13 points, respectively.

“As a team, we need to play the best defense we’ve ever played,” senior forward Zach Puchtel said. “We just need to be tough, we need to control their offense and not let them feel comfortable at any point.”

Being comfortable is something no opposing team has been able to feel as of late in the Gophers’ four-consecutive home wins.

But comfort is something that Minnesota’s players feel at home, both on and off the court.

“They really embraced me as a person coming in,” senior guard Vincent Grier said. “They were always with you. They were always supportive no matter how the game was going -Minnesota’s a great place.”

While all the seniors have different feelings and emotions heading into tomorrow’s game, Puchtel gave a simple description of what he wants out of it.

“I want to make it special,” he said. “I want to win.”

And a win over Illinois coupled with a win against Northwestern and a strong performance in the Big Ten Tournament might just salvage a season that once looked like a wreck.

“People remember you as you leave a program – not in the middle of it or how you came in,” Monson said. “And I think that’s something they’re all trying to focus on.”