The Illinois Fighting Illini defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 51-49, in their first round game of the Big Ten conference tournament at the United Center in Chicago.
Although they won, it was a tale of two halves for the Fighting Illini. Both teams came out of the gates a little stagnate and the Illini went hot first.
They had their way with the Golden Gophers early on. Illinois forced Minnesota into early foul trouble as both Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins had to hit the bench early in the first half.
Both teams were tied at seven apiece early before Illinois went on a run to take a nine point lead at the half.
However, Minnesota would show up in the second half. Both Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins got it going in Act Two. Andre went 4-of-10 from the field, scored 13 points, and grabbed eight rebounds. Austin went 4-of-5 from the field, 5-of-5 from the foul line, scored 16 points, and hauled in six rebounds.
Minnesota led Illinois by three in the final minute. With 47 seconds left, D.J. Richardson hit a huge three-pointer that tied the game at 49-49.
Then, on defensive, Illinois almost forced a turnover on an inbounds pass under their own basket, but it trickled out of bound at half court. The Golden Gophers had only six seconds on the shot clock to get a last shot off. They inbounded the ball and Illinois would get their forced turnover with 14 second left in the game.
At that moment, the senior Brandon Paul “put the team on his back.” Illinois set up in a clear isolation set-up for their leader. Paul dribbled in, crossed over to his left, and hit the dagger to give the Fighting Illini the win.
After the game on the Big Ten Network postgame, Paul mentioned that he has given the ball to Abrams and Richardson for game-winners, but was “taking this one for himself.”
Pure beast mode…nothing more to be said. Paul finished the game with a team-high 25 points (scoring almost half of Illinois’ 51 points). He went 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc.
The rest of the stat sheet might look modest for the Illini, but there is still one stat that cannot be over looked. That stat is turnovers.
Illinois forced the Golden Gophers to commit seventeen turnovers in their first round game. The players that turned the ball over the most for Minnesota were Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams.
With the win, Illinois should be a LOCK for the NCAA Tournament this year. ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi had them as an 8th-seed coming into Thursday’s game. They can now play will one thing on their mind…seeding.
The Illini will only have 24-hours to get ready for their next Big Ten foe. Their next game will be against the Indiana Hoosiers at 11:00 a.m. (CST) on Friday. Illinois defeated the Hoosiers, 74-72, in their only meeting this season. Indiana comes into Friday’s match-up as the #1 seed in the Big Ten conference Tournament.
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