The Gophers are about to go through their toughest stretch of the Big Ten season from here on out.
They’ll enter that stretch with some momentum and a boost of confidence after avenging an earlier loss to Illinois in an 86-75 victory Wednesday night at Williams Arena.
Minnesota’s players say they never forgot how much it stung to suffer a 27-point loss against the Illini on the road two weeks ago. It was the type of bad loss that lingered and hurt the national perception of what definitely looks like an NCAA tournament-caliber team midway through conference play.
“I do feel like everybody is starting to understand their role,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re starting to lock in and get better. We’re improving, which is good to see.”
Amir Coffey had 18 points and six assists to lead five players in double figures for the Gophers (16-5, 6-4 Big Ten), who used a 24-8 run in the second half to pull away for their 11th home victory this season.
An announced crowd of 9,565 showed up despite frigid temperatures that reached 50 degrees below windchill. They were rewarded with an impressive offensive performance, with the Gophers shooting 50 percent from the field. Jordan Murphy had his fourth consecutive double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“I was very, very nervous about the game because of the weather,” Pitino said. “I was expecting 3,000. … No place in the country would show up with that amount of fans in this weather.”
After a 59-57, buzzer-beating loss at No. 5 Michigan last week, the Gophers won back-to-back games at home, including 92-87 Sunday against then-No. 19 Iowa. The résumé is solid right now with four victories against teams in the top 35 of the NCAA’s NET rankings, including Pac-12 leader Washington at a neutral site and Wisconsin on the road.
Illinois (6-15, 2-8) represents the last of the bottom-feeding conference opponents on the Gophers’ schedule for awhile. Six of Minnesota’s last 10 games will be on the road, including three of the next four. Sunday will be at Purdue.
Still, Pitino is excited to see what his improving team can do once the competition gets tougher.
On Wednesday, Illinois looked a lot like the team that upset then-No. 13 Maryland over the weekend. The game was back and forth throughout the first half, but Trent Frazier (a game-high 30 points on 10-for-14 shooting) nailed a three-pointer to put Minnesota down 39-37 at halftime. Frazier, who had 17 of his points in the second half, gave the Illini a 47-42 lead shortly after intermission.
The Gophers needed a spark and got one from Isaiah Washington and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three three-pointers during a 13-1 run. Coffey’s layup increased Minnesota’s lead to 55-48 near the 13-minute mark.
Frazier would cut it to a four-point deficit midway through the second half, but the Gophers stretched the lead out again with a 12-0 run capped by Coffey’s three-point play on an off-balance layup to make it 69-53 with 8:17 left.
Kalscheur had 11 of his 14 points in the second half. Pitino got 25 points off the bench, including Daniel Oturu returning from a shoulder injury to collect 11 points and eight rebounds. Washington also contributed 12 points and four assists.
Minnesota only received only one vote in the AP poll and zero in the coaches’ poll this week. Some of that lack of respect might have come from the 95-68 loss Jan. 16 in Champaign.
Being ranked in January isn’t a big priority, but the Gophers can say they proved the first Illinois blowout loss was a fluke.
“I feel like the last game on the road, we didn’t play together and weren’t as tough,” Kalscheur said. “Today we play poised, we played together. We played strong. We didn’t want to back down. We had to prove to them we weren’t backing down.”