CHAMPAIGN — Early in the second half with eighth-ranked Minnesota leading No. 12 Illinois 39-30, the Gophers’ Andre Hollins fired up a desperation shot from just inside half court against an expiring shot clock.
It went off the glass and in the basket. He smiled, knowing he caught a break. John Groce scowled. He knew it couldn’t be his team’s night.
It wasn’t. Despite a 10-0 run in the second half spearheaded by Tracy Abrams (14 points, four rebounds) that cut a 12-point Minnesota lead to two, the Gophers ran away late to earn an 84-67 win in front 16,618 at a sold-out Assembly Hall.
Joe Coleman had made five three-pointers in his career before Wednesday. He added two more to that total against the Illini en route to scoring a career-high 29 points.
“Joe Coleman, when he had the ball in his hands, good things were happening for us tonight,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.
Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe recorded a double-double (19 points, 11 rebounds). Andre Hollins added 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists for Minnesota (15-1, 3-0 Big Ten)
“They made play after play after play,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I’ve got to give them a lot of credit, they got us, they’re a good basketball team. Coleman and Hollins and Mbakwe, I thought they made a lot of plays.”
Wednesday’s loss was yet another indication for Illinois (14-3, 1-2) of how tough life will be in the Big Ten this season, home or on the road.
The physical nature wore down the Illini.
It’s particularly difficult when the shots are falling as infrequently as they were for the Illini against the Gophers. Groce’s club made 35.4 percent of its shots (23 for 65) including a season-worst 3 for 24 (12.5 percent) from behind the three-point line.
“I think shot selection, you take bad shots consistently, it’s like turnover,” Groce said. “Our execution was awful and when you play a team as good as them, that’s what’s going to happen.”
On the flipside, Minnesota had its best night shooting from long range Wednesday.
“Did I anticipate them going 9 of 15 from three? No. We played a couple of those guys based on the stat sheet certain ways and they made them tonight,” Groce said. “They made them, so I’ve got to give them credit.”
Brandon Paul scored a team-high 21 points for the Illini. The senior left the game in the first half after suffering a bloody nose but returned before halftime.
D.J. Richardson added 14 points, while Nnanna Egwu chipped in eight points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
“This league’s a monster, it’s a grind,” Groce said. “It is what it is, the next one’s coming at you at 1:15 on Saturday.”
Illinois battled foul trouble and cold shooting while the Gophers shot a season-high 60 percent from beyond the arc (9 for 15) in moving to 3-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1974-75.
What the Gophers said
“It was a good win for us. I thought certainly Illinois had the right game plan. They were physical with us early on.” — coach Tubby Smith
What the Illini said
“I thought they played hard. I’m just disappointed in the way they executed. That’s on me; I’ve got to figure that out.” — coach John Groce
What it means
John Groce will have to wait a few more days for another crack at his 100th win as the Illini lost for the first time in nine home games this season. The first-year Illinois skipper entered with a 99-58 mark in his fifth year overall.
The Illini will look to end a three-game losing streak to Wisconsin on Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison, where they have won just once in the last five trips there against Bo Ryan’s club.