MINNEAPOLIS — After D.J. Richardson buried a three-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer to give Illinois a 31-30 lead against No. 18 Minnesota entering the locker room, he sprinted toward his Illinois teammates.
He and Brandon Paul met in midair, delivering a high-flying chest bump as the rest of the Illini celebrated around them.
They’re enjoying themselves again and the good vibes are back after Sunday’s 57-53 win against No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday at Williams Arena.
“We’re having a lot of fun and it’s not just because we won a couple of games, I think it’s because we’re playing together as a team,” said Paul, who scored 10 points to move into 10th place on Illinois’ career scoring list. “Coach (John Groce) talked about getting back to that.”
Truth is, they’ve been playing better for the last two weeks, it’s just now the results are there to back up that claim following Thursday’s win against top-ranked Indiana and Sunday’s triumph on the road.
“We’d gotten better. Sometimes people don’t want to hear that because you might lose and they think ‘God, you automatically got worse.’ That’s not how it works,” Groce said. “I told our guys just to keep swinging the hammer and I’m happy for the older guys, all of them, but I’m happy that those guys have hung in there and grinded and battled and they’ve listened and they remained coachable.”
The players are having fun, so are the coaches. And the couple dozen Illini fans occupying space in the southeast balcony had fun, too, after a deep Tracy Abrams (five points, six rebounds, six assists, no turnovers) three-pointer served as the dagger.
The orange-clad fans chanted “I-L-L, I-N-I” and waved an Illinois flag as the Gophers fans hit the exits to brave Winter Storm Orko, which dumped 6 inches of snow on the Twin Cities.
The goal going forward for the Illini (17-8, 4-7 Big Ten), who got 16 points from Tyler Griffey and 13 from Richardson against Minnesota (17-7, 5-6), is to give their backers something to cheer about in March — in the tournament that most folks truly care about.
“We’re just trying to get to the (NCAA) tournament, that’s our goal,” Richardson said. “We’re trying to finish the rest of this Big Ten season out with some good wins, taking every team once at a time, preparing every day the same way and we’ve got another season after that.”
After the first back-to-back wins in nearly two months, the Illini have put the stretch of games where they lost 8 of 11 in the rearview.
“I don’t think anyone on our team has given up,” Paul said. “As long as we keep fighting, I think good things are ahead for us.”
The Illini trailed 26-12 in the first half and didn’t make their first field goal until midway through the half but used a 17-4 run to take a lead into the locker room to end a 10-game conference losing streak on the road against ranked opponents.
What the Gophers said
“You’re not going to win scoring 53 points against teams. You just can’t play like that. We can’t play like that.” — coach Tubby Smith
What the Illini said
“I don’t think anyone on our team has given up. As long as we keep fighting, I think good things are ahead for us.” — guard Brandon Paul
What it means
Illinois’ NCAA tournament hopes took another jump after defeating back-to-back ranked opponents for the first time in three years and winning consecutive games this season for the first time since its 12-0 start.
Illinois will attempt to end an eight-game losing streak to Purdue at home on Wednesday and in the process will be looking for its first three-game conference win streak since last January.