Illinois victory over Minnesota puts team in title game against Wisconsin


Brad Vest The Daily Illini

Calvin Brock celebrates after a Brian Randle dunk. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

INDIANAPOLIS – One game now stands between Illinois and an improbable NCAA Tournament berth.

The Illini knocked off their third opponent in as many days to advance to the Big Ten Tournament title game, defeating six-seed Minnesota 54-50 in Saturday’s semifinal in Indianapolis.

After two come from behind victories to reach the semifinals, the Illini (16-18) were able to breathe just a little bit easier against the Gophers (20-13), using an entire team effort to reach the program’s fourth conference title game.


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Illini advance to championship game

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Seven different Illini scored and Illinois had 12 assists on the team’s 17 field goals to earn its first four-game winning streak of the season and improve to 5-1 in the month of March.

“It’s been a total team effort this entire tournament,” junior guard Chester Frazier said. “Everybody has been stepping up and doing their job and playing their roles, but the biggest thing is that everybody is playing with a lot more energy.”

The Illini followed in Indiana’s footsteps in the first half. After watching the Hoosiers attack the Gophers inside on Friday, allowing Big Ten Player of the Year D.J. White to score 23 points and collect 13 rebounds, Illinois did the same.

Senior forward Shaun Pruitt led the attack in the paint, scoring a game high 16 points and grabbing 8 rebounds.

Illinois got the ball to Pruitt inside the paint and the Aurora, Ill. native was 4-of-5 shooting in the first half and made four free throws, scoring 12 of his 16 points in the first 20 minutes.

“Shaun’s effort today was amazing, he was our leader,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “He led us in our play-hard chart, getting lose balls and taking charges and all the stuff that never get in the box score.”

Minnesota adjusted in the second half and held the Illini’s leading scorer to one field goal in the final 20 minutes, forcing the Illini to beat the Gophers from the perimeter, which proved to be a challenge.

Illinois was held to one field goal in the first 11 minutes of the half, allowing their six-point halftime lead to diminish and Minnesota to climb back in the game and pull even with the Illini 52-52. But just like in the first two games of the tournament the Illini found a way to get over the brick wall they have hit so often in the regular season, going on 9-2 run late in the game to give them their largest lead 50-40 with 2:30 remaining.

“We were able to get a second wind and even though you could see on everyone’s faces that they were tired but we were able to get a few run-outs and ended up being fine,” Frazier said.

Coming off its best shooting game of the season, Illinois struggled to find its stroke from the field early. After the Illini opened up a 7-2 lead over the Gophers, they would go on a 4:34 drought without a field goal before junior Calvin Brock dropped a jumper home.

“The offense on both sides was kind of sloppy,” Pruitt said. “We just stuck with it and found a way to win and for us to come together and put this season back together these past few games has been huge.”

Despite the slow shooting start the Illini were able to build an early lead from the free throw line of all places. Illinois, with a Big Ten-low season free throw average of 60.6 percent, started the game making their first eight attempts from the charity stripe to build a 29-23 halftime lead. Illinois would finish the game 16-for-22.

Illinois advances to play top-seed and No. 8 Wisconsin in tomorrow’s championship game. Wisconsin and Illinois have met twice before in the title game in 2004 and 2005, with Illinois walking away with the trophy in 2005 on their way to a Final Four appearance.

Sunday’s game will be Illinois’ fourth in four days, but the Illini swear they won’t be fatigued and are determined to finish the tournament with a bang and salvage a season that most had forgotten about.

“If you can’t get up to play a championship game you shouldn’t play basketball,” senior forward Brian Randle said. “I’ll be amped-up as anybody. We have enough heart to go around it will just come down to focus.”