Gophers not so golden

By Courtney Linehan

With 1:49 to play, walk-on guard Chris Hicks entered the game, joining Marcus Arnold, Calvin Brock, Chester Frazier and Jamar Smith in a lineup that lacked a single player who saw a single minute for the Illini last season.

It didn’t matter, though, as the fresh faces held on to a 25-point lead and helped the No. 8 Illini sail to a 77-53 victory over Minnesota.

“I think we looked a little bit like the team that you would expect and they looked like the team that you would expect,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said after the game. “A top-10 team against a team that is struggling and lacking confidence.”

After several games in which the Illini (18-2, 4-2 Big Ten) struggled, head coach Bruce Weber was happy to see his team back on the same page.

Recently inconsistent big man James Augustine put together a big night, scoring 13 points – including 3-of-3 free throws – and grabbing 10 rebounds.

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    “He’s been in a little bit of a funk,” Weber said. “Maybe a little too much pressure on himself, thinking. I just want him to be confident and play relaxed.”

    Guard Dee Brown, who broke out of his own funk with 18 points and eight assists against Northwestern, led the Illini with 17 points and five assists. Forward Brian Randle overcame early foul trouble for 10 points and eight rebounds, and guard Rich McBride sunk a pair of treys on his way to eight points and three assists.

    The biggest turnaround of the night came from guard Smith, who finally had a breakout Big Ten game. Smith scored 16 points by shooting five three-pointers from all over the court and splitting a pair of free throws. The freshman shined during non-conference play, but has struggled throughout the Big Ten season. But with noticeably improved defense and more confident shooting, Smith has made the turnaround and become a big factor in the success of Illinois’ bench.

    “It sure eases the pressure on our offense if Jamar can jump up and hit the three,” Weber said.

    Minnesota dominated things from the charity stripe, sinking 11-of-13 free throws. Guards Maurice Hargrow and Vincent Grier each had 14 points for the Golden Gophers (9-8, 0-6 Big Ten), but that wasn’t enough to keep them in the game, as Illinois built a six-point halftime lead into a 26-point advantage with a minute to play.

    “This is a tough place to come in and have confidence, and obviously in the last couple minutes we reverted to that,” Monson said.

    With their 32nd-consecutive Assembly Hall win, the Illini are now tied with Gonzaga for the second-longest home winning streak in the nation (Weber’s former team, Southern Illinois, has the longest). With Weber’s other former squad, the Purdue Boilermakers, heading to Champaign this weekend, the Illini aren’t planning on staying in second for long. They’re also not counting on a guaranteed victory come Saturday.

    “I just hope we can get 33,” Weber said. “The dang Salukis keep winning, so we’ve got to stay on their tails. James and Dee have lost one game in their career at home, and that’s Purdue.”