Illini snap losing streak in emphatic fashion

Illini snap losing streak in emphatic fashion

CHAMPAIGN — Giorgi Bezhanishvili had something important he wanted to share before answering his first question after Wednesday’s game against Minnesota. The Illinois freshman forward eventually hit on what worked well for the Illini rebounding against the Gophers and how it played into their 95-68 victory, but not before …

“I just want to say my man Ayo’s got a birthday (Thursday), and that was the birthday gift for him for (Thursday),” Bezhanishvili said, putting his arm around fellow freshman Ayo Dosunmu. “He will be 19, the young man right here. That was a gift for him.”

Bezhanishvili is rarely seen without a smile on his face. The rest of his Illinois teammates were in the same state Wednesday night at State Farm Center after dismantling the Gophers to snap a five-game losing streak both in Big Ten play and overall this season.

“It was a night where a lot of things started to click,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I hope this can kick into effect the fact that we have played a really tough schedule and can learn lessons from it. Now we’ve got a win. Minnesota’s really good, guys. We proved we can play with anybody and now win games. I hope that mentally kicks in.”

Illinois (5-12, 1-5 Big Ten) beat the brakes off Minnesota — literally. The Gophers (13-4, 3-3) want to push the tempo. That played into the Illini’s hands at both ends of the court. Illinois’ pressure defense disrupted Minnesota’s transition game, and the Illini were able to play with more pace offensively than they had in any of the previous five losses.

“We didn’t compete like a Big Ten team physically,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “If you want to win — regardless of where the game is — you have to do that. We didn’t do that, so credit to Illinois.

“For some reason when we’ve been bad, we’ve been really bad. It felt like that Ohio State game (a 20-point loss in December) where physically we were just getting manhandled and we just were not finding a way. I thought the second half we did a little bit better of defending and rebounding, but this is a grown man’s league — always has been and always will be — and if you’re not physically competing every single possession you’re going to get beat.”

Pitino said the Gophers learned that lesson again against Illinois. The Illini delivered it with the energy and emotion of a team in need of a win.

Dosunmu posed on his third straight made three-pointer en route to a game-high 23 points. Bezhanishvili had several opportunities to run back on defense with his hand held high in celebration after another low post score that added up to a 20-point effort. And the Illinois bench went wild for big play after big play, capped by a raucous celebration when walk-on guard Drew Cayce finished a reverse layup to put the finishing touch on the 27-point victory.

“I try to just bring that energy,” Dosunmu said. “Giorgi’s bringing energy. Basketball is great when you’re making it fun. We just want to come out here and have fun. If we’re having fun, everything else will take care of itself. That’s the emotion of us just playing together, just playing as one and overall just playing for the next person.”

Those emotions simply come out more in wins. Illinois waited one day past a full month in between wins dating back to the victory against East Tennessee State on Dec. 15.

“You should enjoy those moments,” Underwood said. “If you win, you should get excited. That’s what this game is about is creating that emotion and that vibe. It’s not always like that. We’ve been on the other side of that a bunch and it’s not a good feeling, but I’m glad they got to enjoy that.”

Illinois didn’t seem to intend on celebrating its first Big Ten win very long. Dosunmu said the Illini’s attention would turn immediately to Sunday’s game at No. 23 Iowa.

“It’s a good feeling right now, but we have big upside as a young team,” Bezhanishvili said. “I think we can go far. We just have to keep working and keep growing every day. … We work every day, and that pays off. Our record doesn’t show it, but (Wednesday) we had the win and it kind of made us feel good because we work so much as a young team.”