MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—James Augustine doesn’t care that he just missed a triple-double Tuesday night. His focus is on a much bigger prize.
Augustine had 16 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven assists to lead No. 10 Illinois over Minnesota 71-65, moving the Illini within a half-game of Ohio State for the Big Ten lead.
“Someone told me at halftime I had five assists, but I just laughed at it,” Augustine said. “The win’s more important.”
Illinois finishes the regular season at Michigan State on Saturday. Ohio State has two games left, including one at Northwestern on Wednesday.
“I’m a huge Northwestern fan,” Augustine joked. “We’re gonna hope they pull it out.”
“We haven’t made plans yet, but we’ll probably all get together and watch that game,” said Jamar Smith, who hit a crucial 3-pointer down the stretch.
Dee Brown scored 14 points and Rich McBride had 12 for Illinois (24-5, 10-5), which is looking for its third straight Big Ten title.
Vincent Grier scored 19 points and Moe Hargrow added 17 in their final home game for the Golden Gophers (14-12, 5-10), who have lost 15 straight to Illinois dating back to 1999. Spencer Tollackson and Adam Boone had 10 points each for Minnesota, which finishes its schedule on Saturday at Northwestern.
“We played great in stretches,” Grier said. “But, the whole year’s been like that, ups and downs.”
Grier, Hargrow, Boone, Zach Puchtel and J’son Stamper were all playing their last game at Williams Arena on senior night.
“I thought our seniors’ focus and desire was excellent,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “They put it on the line today, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Asked whether he thought Minnesota had a chance at the NCAA tournament, Monson was realistic, saying he didn’t think a 5-10 record in the Big Ten would get the Gophers in. About the only chance they have is to receive the automatic bid that comes with winning the conference tournament.
“I don’t know if we have to win the Big Ten Tournament, but that probably depends on who we play and how far we go,” Monson said. “We have to worry about Saturday first.”
The game was tied five times in the first five minutes of the second half, before Illinois went on a run. The Illini scored 10 straight points to take a 53-45 lead with 12:02 left.
The Gophers were held scoreless for nearly five minutes and looked out of it until a block by Puchtel on Shaun Pruitt’s dunk attempt sparked Minnesota. Stamper hit a jumper and Boone hit a 3-pointer to bring the Gophers within 60-56 with 4:23 left.
But Smith hit a 3 for Illinois at 2:56 to make it 63-56 and Minnesota couldn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way.
“I missed one before and Dee said I owed him one,” Smith said. “When we were in the huddle I said to him, ‘I got you.”’
Grier scored nine points in the first 10 minutes of the game, as Minnesota got out to a 22-14 lead. Illinois scored eight straight over the next two minutes to tie it at 22.
The Illini closed the first half with an 11-3 run, capped by Augustine’s fast-break dunk, to take a 37-34 lead into the break.
“You live off your seniors and James and Dee, the last couple of weeks, really stepped up,” Illini coach Bruce Weber said.