CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - The Gophers men's basketball team has said it over and over: The most impressive thing about this squad is its balance, the fact that anyone from the starting lineup can take over on any given night.
Wednesday was simply Joe Coleman's turn.
After 12th-ranked Illinois turned its focus on center Trevor Mbakwe -- whose dominant first-half play gave the No. 8 Gophers (15-1) their initial lead -- Coleman took over in crunch time, creating a one-man highlight reel as hot-shooting Minnesota beat the Illini 84-67 at Assembly Hall.
Coleman, a sophomore, scored a career-high 29 points -- 24 in the second half -- on 10-for-16 shooting. He scored off dunks (four), three-pointers (two), free throws (seven).
The Gophers won their 11th in a row and improved to 3-0 in league play for the first time since the 1974-75 season (Minnesota started 3-0 in 1996-97 as well, but those records have been vacated), earning a meaningful victory at the start of the most grueling three-game stretch of the season. Indiana and Michigan come next.
"It's a big win," Mbakwe said. "Anytime you go on the road and get a win like this against a top-15 team, it's huge -- for our confidence, for our record."
The Gophers shot 52.9 percent from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range. They held Illinois to 35 percent shooting. The Illini were 3-for-24 from beyond the arc.
With 12:38 remaining, Illinois (14-3, 1-2) had cut an 11-point deficit to two on three consecutive baskets from point guard Tracy Abrams. From there, Coleman took over. One Illini possession later, Austin Hollins swiped the ball from D.J. Richardson and passed to Coleman, who dunked in transition. It was the start of a 14-5, up-tempo run that featured seven points from Coleman and put the Gophers back on top by 11.
When the Illinois defense failed to adjust, the Gophers kept going to Coleman.
"When someone is rolling like that, you've got to continue to feed him, just like we fed Austin in our last game against Northwestern," said Andre Hollins, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists. "I think that's what makes this team so difficult to guard because on any given day anybody can have a great game like Joe had today."
But in the spirit of balance, Coleman's finish was made possible by the start of Mbakwe, whom coach Tubby Smith wasn't going to even play due to a jammed thumb the day earlier.
Illinois got on a quick run, leading 16-11 on two three-pointers from Richardson 9:13 into the game. The lead was expanded 3 1/2 minutes in when Brandon Paul plowed over Mbakwe for a dunk -- and was subsequently called for the charge, but also given the points.
But behind the aggressive play of Mbakwe (19 points, 11 rebounds) -- who took his second shift after reserve Elliott Eliason struggled to battle with Illinois forwards -- the Gophers came rushing back. Mbakwe started to dominate inside, drawing charges, crashing the boards and hitting two important baskets: a midrange shot that pulled the Gophers within one and, after taking two trips to the line, a dunk that put Minnesota on top 23-19.
"It tells me about his toughness and his heart," Smith said.
So far, those two things have been evident with a team that still has significant challenges immediately ahead.
"It's a huge uplift," Smith said. "So hopefully it will send us in the right direction."