Illinois storms back in final minute, defeats Minnesota in OT

By Alex Roux

Tweet: Illinois picked up its first road win in nearly a year, beating Minnesota in overtime Saturday, writes @aroux94

It looked grim for Illinois down the stretch.

Trailing 60-55 at Minnesota with just over a minute to play Saturday, the Illini seemed to have run out of gas. But Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn weren’t done, and the Illini turned to their two best players to carry them home.

Nunn hit a three from the top of the key and Hill followed with two cold-blooded free throws with 32 seconds left to knot the game up at 60. The Gophers then missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have sent Illinois home with the program’s ninth consecutive loss on the road.

Illinois didn’t look back in overtime, rattling off 11 straight points in the extra period and cruising the rest of the way in a 76-71 win over Minnesota at Williams Arena. The Illini’s overtime push was part of a 20-2 run that ultimately buried the Gophers, and the victory pushed them back to .500 on the season at 10-10 overall and 2-5 in Big Ten play. It was the ninth straight loss for the Gophers, who fell to 6-14 and 0-8 in the Big Ten.

The Illini post players have been decimated by injuries this season, and center Mike Thorne Jr. returned to the sidelines after experiencing soreness in his previously-injured knee. The 6-foot-11 Thorne had originally returned from a meniscus injury last game against Indiana but felt pain in practice Thursday, relegating him to street clothes for Saturday’s contest.

Illinois’ available big men stepped up big in his absence.

Junior Maverick Morgan and redshirt freshman Michael Finke took advantage of Minnesota’s thin front line, combining for 23 points and 23 rebounds on the evening. Morgan’s 14 points were one shy of his career high, and Finke’s career-high 16 rebounds were the most recorded boards by an Illini in over two years.

Nunn finished with 13 points and five rebounds, but the true star of the night was Hill. The 6-foot-6 junior went off for 28 points and 10 rebounds, including six straight crucial free throws at the end of regulation and into overtime. Hill’s 26th point made him the 47th player to reach 1,000 points in an Illini career.

It’s been a tough year for Illinois, but Hill continues to be spectacular. He leads his team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots and increased his scoring average to 18.7 per game Saturday. Simply put, the dude is a beast and Illinois would be close to nowhere without him.

Getting a win after a tough week has to feel great for Illini head coach John Groce, his staff and his players. Unfortunately, beating a lowly Minnesota team doesn’t mean much, but the way they won was an unexpected relief. Too often we’ve seen Groce’s teams go down five points with about a minute to play and have no chance, but Saturday they responded. Minnesota being bad certainly helped the outcome, but you have to credit the Illini for not folding like they did at Indiana.

You could tell this one meant a lot to both teams. As Minnesota came back from a 53-46 deficit, Gophers coach Richard Pitino was fired up, electrifying the crowd as he stormed back and forth down the sideline. On the other end, Groce was as furious at the referees as we’ve seen him all season after a pair of late questionable calls, and both benches were exuberant throughout the game. Even with both teams’ struggles, it was clear both teams desperately wanted to win.

No matter who it came against, it was important that Illinois got a win — any win — at this point in the season. The competition will step up several notches when Ohio State and Wisconsin visit Champaign next, but both teams have scuffled this year as well.

It’s now up to the Illini to steer themselves further from the brink of disaster.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94