Comeback win marks Senior Night for Illini basketball

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Comeback win marks Senior Night for Illini basketball

Illinois' new athletic director Josh Whitman lead the State Farm Center crowd in an

Illinois' new athletic director Josh Whitman lead the State Farm Center crowd in an "ILL-INI" chant during halftime of the Illini's game against Minnesota.

Illinois' new athletic director Josh Whitman lead the State Farm Center crowd in an "ILL-INI" chant during halftime of the Illini's game against Minnesota.

Illinois' new athletic director Josh Whitman lead the State Farm Center crowd in an "ILL-INI" chant during halftime of the Illini's game against Minnesota.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

Call it the Josh Whitman effect.

After the incoming Illinois athletic director riled up the State Farm Center crowd with a rousing halftime speech at Sunday game against Minnesota, Illinois stormed out of the tunnel and immediately erased an eight-point deficit. The Illini out-scored the under-manned Gophers 52-31 in the second half for an 84-71 win.

A halftime commitment from four-star 2017 prospect DaMonte Williams also didn’t hurt the festive mood surrounding Illini hoops in the second half — you can read about that here.

The first half Sunday was a grim carry-over from Thursday’s 28-point beatdown at the hands of Indiana, as the Illini (13-16, 5-11) looked helpless against a Minnesota team that is now 8-20 and 2-14 in the Big Ten.

The Gophers announced before tip-off that leading scorer Nate Mason and rotation players Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer would not play due to a violation of team rules. That came less than two weeks after senior guard Carlos Morris was kicked off the team, so the Gophers were severely shorthanded Sunday as Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino only played six guys against the Illini.

And for the first 20 minutes, those six punked the Illini on their Senior Night.

The Gophers led by as many as 12 and got to the rim at ease as freshman Jordan Murphy racked up 17 first-half points. The only Illinois player to show much of a pulse was freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who nailed four 3-pointers and kept the Illini in the game with 12 first-half points.

Illinois head coach John Groce went into halftime down 40-32 with a message for his players.

“I looked at the older guys (including juniors Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill) and told them, you guys figure it out,” Groce said after the game.

Groce’s guys certainly had Minnesota solved in the second half. They turned up the pressure on defense and forced the Gophers into 11 second-half turnovers, which in turn opened up the Illini’s transition attack.

A Hill and-one followed a Nunn fast-break dunk midway through the second half as point guard Jaylon Tate implored the sparse-but-roaring Illini crowd to get on its feet. By the time Illinois center Maverick Morgan leaked out in transition and threw down a one-handed slam to push the Illini lead to 67-50, the fans at State Farm Center were delirious.

The fans deserved those moments. Whatever fraction of the announced attendance of 12,008 who actually showed up is likely the baseline turnout for Illini basketball; those willing to make the trip for a basement Big Ten matchup on Sunday in a lost season are as loyal as they come.

No-shows and people who tuned into the Oscars instead of Big Ten Network Sunday evening certainly can’t be faulted, because support needs to be earned in college basketball. But it was nice to see the team as currently constructed and its fans enjoying a few bright spots together in a season that has seen so few.

Point guard Khalid Lewis was the only senior to see the floor Sunday for Illinois, and the graduate transfer finished with seven points and four assists.

After a shaky outing against Indiana, Hill and Nunn looked like their old selves Sunday as they put the Illini on their backs again. Hill finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, and Nunn looked as active on offense as he has all year in a 25-point outburst.

Coleman-Lands finished with 18.

Illinois did Sunday what it absolutely should do against one of the worst teams in the Big Ten missing three contributors. A 13-point win means little for an Illini team likely headed for one of Wednesday’s Big Ten tournament games.

But a victory on Senior Night after Whitman’s speech and the news of Williams’ halftime commitment should be enough to make even the most cynical Illini fan crack a smile.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94