Illinois basketball stomps shorthanded Minnesota


Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn (25) puts up a layup over Minnesota’s Charles Buggs (23) during the Illini’s 84-71 win over Minnesota.

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

With thousands of happy fans cheering around him, Khalid Lewis dribbled out this season’s final seconds at State Farm Center on Sunday night.

As the lone senior on the floor for Illinois’ Senior Night, Lewis took in the State Farm Center crowd for the final time in his one-year stint as an Illini before heading to the locker room to celebrate a rare home win.

“It was a great experience playing in an environment like this,” Lewis said. “It went by fast.”

In their final home game of the season, the Illini (13-16, 5-11 Big Ten) sealed a 84-71 victory over a very short-handed Gophers squad (8-20, 2-14).

After trailing by eight heading into the locker room, the Illini ramped it up for the second half and came out of the gates on an 11-3 run. Illinois outscored Minnesota 54-31 in the final 20 minutes en route to its third conference win at home.

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Head coach John Groce said he didn’t deliver any sort of halftime speech, but instead let the players motivate each other to play better.

“We spoke as a team in the locker room,” junior guard Kendrick Nunn said. “We agreed on some things that we were doing wrong and tried to clean up. It was Senior Night, we wanted to go out on a bang.”

It was the Nunn and Hill show throughout. Nunn led all players with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting along with four steals and three rebounds. Junior captain Malcolm Hill bounced back from his five-point outing against Indiana and finished with 22 points, seven boards, five dimes and four steals.

Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands continued his hot shooting with 18 points on five makes from downtown, and junior center Maverick Morgan pitched in eight points and four boards.

While it was an all-around effort for Illinois, Minnesota was forced to rely on just six players.

Shortly before tip-off, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino announced the suspensions of leading scorer Nate Mason, starter Dupree McBrayer and leading bench scorer Kevin Dorsey for violating team rules — the trio has accounted for roughly 40 percent of Minnesota’s total minutes this season.

The suspensions forced walk-on guard Stephon Sharp into the primary ball-handler role, and the Illini took advantage of the freshman’s inexperience, especially in the second half during which they accumulated nine steals. The Illini finished with 20 points off turnovers, including a series of fastbreak buckets that sparked an extended 28-8 rally to open the second half.

Sharp, who had played 39 total minutes preceding Sunday’s game, impressed with a career-high 19 points but threw the ball away seven times.

Prior to tip-off, Illinois honored seniors Lewis, Mike La Tulip and Mike Thorne Jr. at half court for Senior Night. Lewis put together another solid game with seven points, four assists, two steals and a block.

LaTulip hasn’t played all season but has 44 games as an Illini under his belt and was the first off the bench to congratulate his teammates on Sunday’s win. And although he was honored pregame, Thorne Jr. plans to pursue a medical hardship waiver for one more season with Illinois.

Things looked grim for the Illini in the first half. On the strength of three consecutive 3-pointers, the Gophers rushed out to an 11-0 run to open the game. Freshman forward Jordan Murphy bullied his way to 17 points and 8 rebounds in the opening half alone, and the Gophers held a 40-32 lead heading into the locker room.

The Illini held Murphy to five second-half points, and with senior leader Joey King in foul trouble, Minnesota simply didn’t have enough to challenge Illinois in the second stanza.

Illinois will finish off the regular season with two road games before setting its sights on the Big Ten tournament.

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