Versatile Carter sinks Gophers

Illinois forward Shaun Pruitt (55) pulls down a rebound over Minnesota forward Bryce Webster, right, during the first half of the 64-52 Illini win over the Gophers in Minneapolis, Wednesday. Illinois has now won 16 consecutive contests over Minnesota. Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press

Illinois forward Shaun Pruitt (55) pulls down a rebound over Minnesota forward Bryce Webster, right, during the first half of the 64-52 Illini win over the Gophers in Minneapolis, Wednesday. Illinois has now won 16 consecutive contests over Minnesota. Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – Illinois rediscovered some confidence against a depleted Minnesota team that has been playing like it doesn’t have any.

Warren Carter had 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists to lead the Fighting Illini to a 64-52 victory over the Golden Gophers on Wednesday night.

Extending the winning streak over Minnesota to 16, dating to the 1998-99 season, Illinois (14-6, 2-3) built some momentum for Saturday’s home game against second-ranked Wisconsin.

After losing several stars to the NBA from the national runner-up squad two seasons ago, the Illini have been lacking poise and experience and found themselves out of the conference’s elite tier for the first time in several years.

But beating the Badgers would put them right back in the thick of the race, or at least in realistic contention for an NCAA tournament bid.

“We’ve got to get this one,” said Carter, whose inconsistency along with fellow senior Rich McBride’s earlier struggles have stung Illinois.

Gophers interim coach Jim Molinari gave the Illini his blessing.

“I guarantee they have a tremendous chance against Wisconsin,” he said.

Lawrence McKenzie had 17 points for Minnesota (7-11, 1-3), which has scored only 45, 49 and 52 points while losing to Wisconsin, Iowa and now Illinois over the past two weeks. The Gophers are sorely missing injured junior center Spencer Tollackson, their leading rebounder and the only reliable scorer beyond McKenzie and Dan Coleman, who had 10 points.

The more athletic Illini denied the passing lanes well and, without an inside threat to worry about, harassed McKenzie into 1-for-6 shooting from 3-point range and six turnovers. Coleman went only 2-for-13.

“I really didn’t see too many open shots,” McKenzie said.

Molinari, who is 5-6 since Dan Monson was forced to resign, couldn’t find any positives, other than the seven points Brandon Smith scored off the bench in his first action since being suspended for breaking an unspecified team rule.

Minnesota let Carter do anything he wanted in the first half, when he scored 14 points from a variety of spots on the floor. Overall, the Gophers got beat once again on the rebounds (33-25) and gave up way too much on the perimeter. Illinois shot 7-for-14 from behind the arc.

“If we don’t guard, we have no chance,” Molinari said, later adding: “I don’t really know where our scoring options are.”

Earlier this week, Molinari described the game as a matchup of two desperate teams, but only the Illini played like it. Minnesota didn’t score until Coleman’s layup and three-point play with more than five minutes elapsed, and Illinois built a lead as large as 38-15 with 2:50 left before halftime on Shaun Pruitt’s dunk.

That capped a 21-2 run over less than six minutes, highlighted by McBride’s 3-pointer off a fastbreak. Limar Wilson had come up with the ball after a steal by Jamal Abu-Shamala, but instead of flinging it to an open teammate he dribbled to the corner and then lobbed a dangerous pass – which was intercepted by Carter to start the transition and set up McBride’s shot.

Smith made a pair of free throws after being intentionally fouled by Trent Meacham to cut the lead to 59-49 near the five-minute mark, but McKenzie was called for carrying the ball on the subsequent possession and the Gophers never came closer. The loudest the crowd, announced at 11,020 people, got was at halftime when new football coach Tim Brewster was introduced.

Meacham and Brian Randle each added 12 points for the Illini, whose streak over Minnesota is the longest active Big Ten run by any team against any other.