Illinois coming off its best win of season

MINNEAPOLIS — Seemingly every night in the Big Ten, there’s a big shot or a thrilling finish.

Saturday, it was Wisconsin taking down No. 3 Michigan in overtime thanks in part to a last-second halfcourt shot. Two days earlier, it was unranked Illinois knocking off the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers on a wide-open layup at the buzzer by Tyler Griffey.

Now, the No. 18 Gophers get to host Illinois after the Illini’s confidence-boosting victory. That could mean one of two things for Minnesota, which is looking to bounce back from a loss to Michigan State earlier this week.

“It could be good and bad,” junior guard Austin Hollins said of facing Illinois after its big win. “They could either be too hyped up and come in maybe over-ready to play. Or they were struggling a little bit early in the Big Ten, so maybe they’ll come in and they’ll have that renewed confidence.

“It could go either way. We’re just going to be prepared for whichever Illinois team comes in here.”

The Fighting Illini will visit Williams Arena with a 3-7 Big Ten record after starting their season 12-0 during nonconference play. The Gophers took care of Illinois on the road back in early January, when Minnesota was ranked No. 8 and the Illini were No. 12. The Gophers ran away with an 84-67 win that began a bit of a tailspin for Illinois. The loss to Minnesota was the first of three in a row for John Groce’s squad, and the Illini went on to lose six of their next seven.

Still, Illinois’ win over top-ranked Indiana shows just how tough the Big Ten is and proves that just about any team can win on any given night. It was also a sign that the Illini are much improved since facing the Gophers a month ago.

“It’s the Big Ten. Every game you come out’s a big game,” said Minnesota senior Trevor Mbakwe, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds against Illinois earlier this season. “I know that they were kind of in a rough stretch. They’re definitely a better team than they’re record shows. They’re probably one of the best 3-7 teams in the nation. We know that regardless of the win, beating a No. 1 team, you have a lot more confidence. But I know they’re coming into this game wanting to get revenge on us for beating them at their place already.”

Illinois has not been a great 3-point shooting team this season, as the Illini have connected on just 33 percent of their shots from long range. That includes the loss to Minnesota in which Illinois was a dismal 3-for-24 from downtown.

“We did a good job up there against their 3-point shooting,” said Gophers coach Tubby Smith. “We’ll have to do a better job here.”

Against Indiana, though, the Illini hit 9 of 24 shots from 3-point range in the upset victory. The Gophers, meanwhile, let Michigan State connect on 9 of 18 3-pointers earlier this week. In a win over Nebraska late last month, Minnesota gave up nine 3-pointers to the Cornhuskers, who were 9-of-14 from downtown.

Limiting Illinois’ success from long range will once again be key for Minnesota on Sunday.

“We’ve just got to play harder on defense, get a little more effort here and there,” Hollins said. “I think we know we’re capable of guarding it. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it. We’ve got to play with a lot more intensity, a lot more urgency when we come out.”

When Minnesota hosts Illinois on Sunday at Williams Arena, the Gophers will be looking to get back on track after Wednesday’s loss and improve to over .500 in Big Ten. The Illini continue to try to gain traction in the conference and have Thursday’s win to hang their hats on heading into the final stretch of the year.

There’s no easy game in the Big Ten. Illinois showed Indiana that. Now, the Gophers are hoping the Illini don’t pull off their second upset of the week.

“It’s just going to show where we are,” sophomore Andre Hollins said. “We’re .500 in the Big Ten. This would be a big win to put us at 6-5. And they’re coming off their big win, so it gets us that much closer to try to be the top. I think at the end of the season, the No. 1 team might have five losses. We’re at our limit, so we’re just trying to win out.”

Ellenson sidelined with heel injury: Gophers freshman Wally Ellenson will be sidelined one to two weeks with a strained Achilles’, Smith said Saturday.

Ellenson suffered the injury during the first half of Wednesday’s loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. The freshman guard played just four minutes in the first half before leaving with the injury.

“I’m glad he didn’t tear it,” Smith said. “He’ll just have to get some treatment and we’ll see how it goes. He was ready to start playing well. It’s unfortunate, for us and for him.”

After missing the beginning of the season with a broken hand, Ellenson has appeared in just six games and averaged 5.8 minutes and 2.0 points off the bench. 

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