Second half shows what could have been

By Lucas Deal

It was a glimpse.

It didn’t last as long as it could have and it’s doubtful it will show itself again any time soon, but in the second half of Illinois’ 59-49 win over Minnesota on Saturday, the Illini fans were treated to a glimpse of what things were like before the injuries struck.

For a brief moment, the Illini had their mojo back.

It started on Minnesota’s first possession of the second half, when Brian Randle stole the ball from Golden Gopher Dan Coleman and raced down the court for a defiant slam. It ended more than ten minutes later, when Warren Carter drained a pair of free throws to give the Illini a 21-point lead.

It was a beautiful mixture of offense and defense delicately blended into the one mega run Minnesota interim coach Jim Molinari said his team simply could not withstand.

“When you play games in our situation, you don’t really play to win as much as you’re playing to avoid the dam breaking,” Molinari said.

Molinari’s club lived up to the challenge in the first half, they just couldn’t hold it anymore at the start of the second.

And the floodgates opened in a hurry.

Randle’s dunk sparked the Illini, ignited the crowd and discouraged the Gophers. From that point on, the game would no longer be in doubt.

During the Illinois run, the Illini outscored the Gophers 23-6.

Their motion offense was crisp and their defensive intensity was strong. They completely shut down Minnesota’s low post game and forced the cold-shooting Gophers to launch a drove of attempts from three-point range. Minnesota responded by shooting 3-of-18.

“The way (Illinois) defends the three-point line at home is incredible,” Molinari said.

Yes, Illinois’ second-half run Saturday was a glimpse into what life was like for the Illini and their fans before this season. During the run, the Illini just looked better than Minnesota. They looked like the better team.

Essentially, they looked like a team that knew they were going to win.

I think that is something that has been missing from the team this season. In wins and in losses, the team has always looked the same. They’ve looked tired and beaten down, like a team that just doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.

And they’ve been successful; it’s just been an ugly grind to success.

Saturday night’s run wasn’t like that. It was uplifting, it was fun.

“This is the first time we’ve won two straight in the Big Ten,” said Rich McBride, who scored 13 points in the win. “Now we’ve got to keep it going and finish strong.”

Indeed they do.

At 17-8 overall and 5-5 in the Big Ten, the Illini are in a precarious position.

The team must continue to win to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, yet injuries continue to mount.

The team has to build on what happened Saturday.

I don’t expect every game from now on to be easy wins like Saturday and I also don’t expect the team to have such successful extended runs. But I do think they will start playing better. I think they will build on this, and I think they will get better.

I think Saturday’s run was the springboard.

“We’ve made a little step,” Illini head coach Bruce Weber said. “Now we have to climb over it and stay over.”

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]