Minnesota came into the season with the motto ‘Animal Within’.
In the first half on Wednesday night, Trevor Mbakwe showed why. The senior scored 13 of his season-high 19 points in the opening half and was fierce in the rebounding game. Mbakwe outmatched the frontcourt of Illinois, proving his dominance in the paint.
With the frontcourt in full array for Minnesota, coach Tubby Smith relayed a different strategy to his lineup in the second half. He instilled a mentality to outshoot, and it worked as the Fighting Illini continued to sag defensively to cover Mbakwe.
The Gophers (15-1, 3-0) scored 50 points in the second half for the second consecutive game and gave the program a 3-0 start in Big Ten conference play. The 84-67 victory is only the second win in the last 14 tries for Minnesota in Champaign.
The disrupted defense of Illinois (14-3, 1-2) allowed the sophomore duo of Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman to take over in the second half.
Coleman scored a career-high 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including two three-pointers. Entering the game, the sophomore from Minneapolis made only two shots from long distance all season.
Hollins had a packed stat line of his own. He proclaimed a line of 22 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in 31 minutes of action. It was the first time this season that both Hollins and Coleman scored over 20 points in the same game.
The key moment in Wednesday’s victory on the road at Assembly Hall came in the middle of the second half. The Fighting Illini were on a quick 8-0 run when Hollins took the ball in transition after stealing it out of a defender’s hands. With no one in front of Hollins, Joseph Bertrand intentionally fouled the guard. After nailing both free throws, Hollins drilled a three-pointer on the following possession. The five-point play gave Minnesota a nine-point advantage.
The physical defense from Austin Hollins and company prevailed over the strength of the Fighting Illini. Coming into Wednesday’s contest, Ilinois shot the most three-pointers in the nation. The team only made three of its 15 long range shots in the first half.
While the Fighting Illini ranked first in attempted threes in all of college basketball, the team is only fifth in the Big Ten Conference in terms of three-point percentage.
John Groce had to coach the Fighting Illini without its best player for five-and-a-half minutes in the first half. Brandon Paul left the game with 15:50 to go in the opening half with a nosebleed.
Paul finished the game with a team-high 21 points, but made only one three pointer in 33 minutes. The team missed all nine attempts from behind the arc in the second half.
The Gophers now head to Indiana on Saturday to face the No. 5 Hoosiers.
After a strong first half showing, Mbakwe finished the game with 11 rebounds to go with 19 points. It was his fourth double-double of the season.
Minnesota had seven turnovers in the first half, but the second string caused the majority of the errors. Elliot Eliason and Andre Ingram struggled when inserted in the main rotation when Rodney Williams left with foul trouble. Each of the forwards had two turnovers.
With the bench reeling, the coaching staff stuck with the starting five for the majority of the second half. The reserves did not score a point in the win.