Illinois men’s basketball travels to Minnesota amid three-game winning streak

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Sidney Malone

Redshirt sophomore center Dain Dainja goes for a layup against Michigan State on Friday. Dianja led the Illini in scoring with 20 points, leading to a 75-66 victory.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

After a poor initial start to 2023, the Illini have ignited a sharp turnaround and have looked like an entirely different team.

Ever since its loss to Northwestern to open the new year, Illinois has been on a tear, winning three straight conference games against the likes of No. 14 Wisconsin, Nebraska and most recently Michigan State.

The victory over the in-form Spartans in Champaign saw the Illini end what was a seven-game win streak for the visitors. In a gritty back-and-forth contest, Illinois managed to close out the game by a nine-point margin after being down at halftime.

“It was nice to watch film and only see five turnovers,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “It was nice to see us really execute and get defensive stops in the last eight minutes of that game. We were dialed in and we looked like a really good basketball team in those moments.”

Big performances late in the matchup from redshirt sophomore center Dain Dainja and fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer boosted the Illini in front of an electric crowd at State Farm Center. Heading into Monday’s showdown in Minneapolis, Illinois has significant momentum on its side but will have to play sharp against a Minnesota team that, according to Underwood, is “playing much better than their record.”

The Golden Gophers are also coming into the contest with some slight wind in their sails. Despite losing close contests to Wisconsin and Nebraska to open 2023, Minnesota managed to recover and defeated Ohio State in a tight 70-67 victory last Thursday. In terms of man-to-man matchups, the Golden Gophers could provide some problems for the Illini.

“They’re very big,” Underwood said. “They have tremendous physicality and they’ve got one of the guys that’s maybe playing as well as anybody in Dawson Garcia. (He’s) an inside-out threat, can drive it and can beat you off the bounce. They’re a team that is very, very capable offensively of having big nights from the three.”

Monday night will provide a chance for Illinois to claim its fourth conference win and go above .500 in the Big Ten standings after starting conference play 0-3. Minnesota, on the other hand, will be searching for its second Big Ten win of the season.

Historically, the Illini lead in their all-time record against the Golden Gopher 127-68. Recent times have also favored Illinois, who have not lost against Minnesota in the two teams’ last four encounters.

In addition to Dainja and Mayer, the Illini need senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. to be hot over the course of the whole game. Shannon was a force against Michigan State, but only in the first ten minutes that saw him put up 15 of Illinois’ opening 19 points.

In terms of absences, the Illini will only be missing sophomore guard Luke Goode who is recovering from a foot injury. Despite having to leave the last game due to injury, freshman guard Sencire Harris suffered a bruise and will be available to play against the Golden Gophers.

“We’ve gotta play hard,” Underwood said. “We’ve gotta be dialed in terms of being able to understand that Dawson can pick and pop, Dawson can roll, Dawson can post. They’ve got a big point guard, Cooper is an unbelievable shooter. If we give him a crack he’s gonna make it. You put him with Battle and that gives you a very formidable trio, so they’re a good basketball team and we’re gonna have to play well to win.”

 

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