CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – There was a pretty clear story line for the Illinois men’s basketball team Saturday against the Gophers. It was a must-win situation with the Illini’s NCAA tournament hopes dwindling.
The Gophers somehow weren’t in that position yet, but they saw what desperation looks like.
Trying to avoid that situation, they ended a five-game losing streak Saturday after opening the second half with a 10-point lead and holding on for a 68-59 victory over the Illini in front of the first sellout crowd at the newly renovated State Farm Center.
“We squandered some wins that we needed to get,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “But you erase that by stealing some on the road that are difficult to get. We don’t talk about NCAA tournament. We want to go. That is the goal, but we just narrowed our focus.”
Reggie Lynch avoided foul trouble and had a team-high 15 points, six rebounds and two blocks. Akeem Springs added 14 points and six rebounds for the Gophers (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten), who won for the first time in Champaign since 2013.
“Losing five in a row was very annoying and very tough on us,” Lynch said. “But we didn’t let it go to our heads and break us down. We fought through and knew we had one of the best defenses in the country and the conference.”
Pitino watched his team let three consecutive opponents shoot 50 percent or better, but the Gophers took control defensively Saturday. Illinois (13-11, 3-8) shot only 30 percent in the second half, including 4-for-16 to start the half after battling to tie the score 35-35 at halftime.
Lynch scored eight points in the first six minutes of the half. The 6-10 junior center scored on jump hooks and threw down an emphatic dunk for a 48-40 lead at 14:20. The Gophers took their biggest lead 59-46 after a defensive stop led to a fast-break layup from Dupree McBrayer with 7:54 remaining.
With the Orange Crush student section screaming for one last rally, Illinois cut it to 62-56 at 3:45 after back-to-back jumpers from Maverick Morgan, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Springs missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to give Illinois an opportunity to make it closer. But Nate Mason’s layup and Amir Coffey’s two free throws extended the lead to 10 points with less than a minute left.
Coffey finished with 13 points and five rebounds. Mason scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half.
The last two times the Gophers won at Illinois, they made the NCAA tournament, in 2010 and ’13. Pitino’s team is very much still in NCAA contention, especially after Saturday.
After opening Big Ten play with an overtime home loss to Michigan State, the Gophers followed that with two impressive road victories in a row, at Purdue and Northwestern. They then lost three straight away from home, at Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. They had a chance to win the latter two down the stretch and failed.
This time, Minnesota figured out a way to come together in crunch time.
Pitino urged the Gophers to “take ownership” of their poor play earlier in the week.
A players-only meeting Monday aired out the frustration about how they were struggling to win close games. Five of their six Big Ten losses were by single digits, including to Big Ten title contenders Maryland and Wisconsin.
Captains Springs and Mason called out teammates for not doing the little things to win, such as boxing out, getting loose balls or hustling on defense late in games.
“We needed to have a team meeting with just players, so we could address everything,” Mason said. “So we didn’t have to hold anything on our chest. I felt like that helped us.”