Illinois rallies for another upset of a ranked team

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

MINNEAPOLIS -- Trailing by 11 points before the game was even eight minutes old, Illinois easily could have packed it in Sunday night and simply reflected on its recent upset of the nation's top-ranked team.
But it did not matter that Illini trailed Minnesota by double digits early or that it was behind by 12 points with four minutes left in the first half, not with the way the Illini shot the 3-pointer in the final 27 minutes of Illinois' 57-53 road victory over the No. 18 Gophers.
Illinois made 11 3-pointers in those 27 minutes as it followed up Thursday's upset of No. 1 Indiana with another quality victory, capping a week that moves the Illini at least into conversations regarding an NCAA Tournament berth.
Illinois (17-8, 4-7 Big Ten) has now won consecutive Big Ten games for the first time this season. It is also the first time the Illini have won two games in a row against ranked opponents since 2010.
"I was really proud of our guys' toughness and togetherness, down 13-2 and 26-14," Illinois coach John Groce said. "One thing that is happening now is that people trust each other. They trust the system more. They are sticking with the game plan even when they are behind. I thought we had several people step up and make plays. That is two games in a row where we were tough and able to weather some adversity."
The loss continues what has been an annual February slide for Minnesota (17-7, 5-6). The Gophers have lost two in a row and six of eight. Since Feb. 1, 2011, Minnesota is now 3-15 in February.
The 3-point shooting was certainly something of a surprise for the Illini. Illinois entered the game averaging 5.9 3-pointers per game and was 11th in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage, making just 26.7 percent of its long-range attempts. But the Illini took advantage of Minnesota's struggles to defend perimeter jumpers. After missing four long-range shots to start the game, Illinois went 11-for-19 from behind the line the rest of the way.
After the two teams traded the lead for much of the second half, the 3-pointer played a big part in Illinois finishing the upset. D.J. Richardson made a pair of free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt with 2:38 to play that gave the Illini a 54-51 lead. Tracy Abrams then made a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left that gave Illinois its final points.
On the other end of the floor, Illinois limited the Gophers to only two field goals over the final eight-plus minutes.
Tyler Griffey led Illinois with four 3-pointers and 16 points. Richardson made three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points, and Brandon Paul added 10 points.
Austin Hollins led Minnesota with 16 points while Trevor Mbakwe scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Minnesota was without second leading scorer Rodney Williams, who suffered a shoulder injury in practice Saturday. Williams was in uniform and went through pregame warmups, but did not play. Williams is averaging 11.9 points per game.
"We just didn't do the things we had to in guarding the threes or switching like we should," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.
That was especially the case late in the first half when Illinois got back into this game. With the Gophers failing to make a field goal over the final 5:12 of the first half, Illinois took advantage.
The Illini made four 3-pointers over the final four minutes -- three from Richardson and one from Paul -- and closed the half on a 17-4 run.
After the Gophers turned the ball over in the closing seconds of the half, Richardson dribbled the ball up the left side of the court, stopped and buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave Illinois a 31-30 lead at the break.
"When I hit my first two threes in the first half, two possessions in a row, I felt the energy rise in our team," Richardson said. "That changed the momentum of the game. The shot I hit going into halftime, I think that was a big shot that changed the game around."
The Illini hope that beating two ranked teams in four days helps turn their season around.
"We stayed poised in the first half and found a way to grind it out," Paul said. "I think we're maturing."
Notes: Both teams made a change in their starting lineups. Big man Elliott Eliason started in his place of Williams. Groce started guard Joseph Bertrand in place of Tracy Abrams. ... Minnesota has not swept a two-game regular-season series from Illinois since 1996. ... After Thursday night's win over top-ranked Indiana, the Illini became the only team in the country to record three wins over teams currently ranked in the top 10 in the country. Illinois previously defeated current No. 6 Gonzaga and current No. 10 Ohio State. ... Minnesota hosts Wisconsin on Thursday night in an important game for the Gophers. After the game with the Badgers, Minnesota will play four of its final six Big Ten games away from Williams Arena.

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