CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey had no idea what her players on the Illinois women's basketball team were up to.
The third-year Illini coach soon found out just what they had planned for her.
The Illinois players — having minutes before knocked off Minnesota for a second consecutive season, this time ending an 11-game Big Ten losing streak dating back to last season with a 74-71 victory Sunday afternoon at State Farm Center — doused their coach with water in the locker room to celebrate the win against the Gophers.
"I had no clue," said Fahey — still sporting a wet head of hair in the postgame press conference — of the impromptu locker room celebration. "There was a lot of cold water, but it was fun. It was more fun just watching the players. I'll admit (it was fun) watching them sing the alma mater (after the win)."
A season ago, the Illini (10-6, 1-4 Big Ten) pulled off a stunning 66-62 upset win against then-No. 12 Minnesota in Minneapolis — Fahey's first-ever Big Ten win.
Just over a year later, the Gophers (11-5, 1-4) entered Champaign on a three-game losing streak and were at less than full strength against the Illini.
The team announced before Sunday's 2 p.m. tipoff that Gophers leading scorer Destiny Pitts — averaging 16.3 points per game — had been suspended for “conduct unbecoming a member of the team," while Taiye Bello — Minnesota's second-leading scorer at 13.0 ppg — and twin sister Kehinde Bello, a key reserve off the bench, both did not travel with the team to Champaign.
Illinois — also without one of its three key freshmen, as Jada Peebles sat out with a concussion — didn't make life any easier on Minnesota, courtesy another standout performance from Petra Holesinska (game-high 28 points) and an influx of scoring from Mackenzie Blazek (nine points).
Having lost their first four conference games by an average margin of 32 points, the Illini got off to a fast start.
Blazek, making her first start of the season in place of Ali Andrews who came off the bench for the first time this season, gave Illinois six points in the first quarter.
Holesinska was a big reason the Illini's 36-32 halftime advantage grew in the second half with the redshirt junior guard scoring 16 points in the final 20 minutes.
"I know I have to kind of put the ball on the floor more now because everyone is kind of chasing me off of every screen," said Holesinska, who scored more of her points on shots inside the arc (12) than outside of it (nine) and also made seven free throws. "I've been working on that, and kind of made that work (Sunday)."
The "kind of made that work" remark Holesinska used in describing her game against Minnesota drew a chuckle from Brandi Beasley, who had a more glowing review of Illinois' leading scorer.
"At the end of the day, players make plays," Beasley said of Holesinska, who was sitting two seats across from her in the postgame media room. "She's a hell of a player. I mean she's a great player."
Holesinska's performance, along with a freshman connection between Kennedi Myles and Jeanae Terry, who finished with a combined 19 points, helped Illinois build its largest lead of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Terry found Myles for a layup and later Holesinska drained a pair of free throws as the Illini led 68-56 with 4:28 left in regulation.
The final four-plus minutes, however, turned out be nerve-racking for Illinois as Minnesota made a huge late push.
Jasmine Brunson's only made three-pointer pulled the Gophers to within three points and the 5-foot-8 senior guard brought Minnesota even closer when she stole an in-bounds pass, eventually leading to a layup by Jasmine Powell.
Fahey, who tried to call timeout before Holesinska's errant in-bounds pass, finally stopped the action with 1:06 left and Illinois up 72-71.
Still, the Gophers had three chances to go ahead in the final 30 seconds with Powell missing a layup and Brunson misfiring on a jump shot following a Minnesota offensive rebound.
Brunson's miss and yet-another offensive rebound by Minnesota led Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen to call timeout with 12 seconds left.
But, the third time was the charm for Illinois defensively with Beasley stealing an in-bounds pass by Gadiva Hubbard. Immediately afterward, Sara Scalia, who led Minnesota with 16 points, fouled Beasley.
"We were trying to get a ball screen get it to someone in the paint and be aggressive," Whalen said of Hubbard's in-bound attempt from underneath the basket, which actually followed a timeout from Fahey. "They defended (the play) really good and got the steal. We had our call in and felt good about it."
Beasley walked the length of the court and calmly knocked down the two ensuing free throws — the senior's only attempts at the free-throw line all game.
"I knew they were important," said Beasley, who netted 12 points. "But it's nothing that I don't do on a daily basis. I stayed calm. It's just another free throw.
"I think about everything except the free throw. So it's natural. I try to keep that one shot off of my mind."
Beasley's two free throws gave the Illini a three-point lead, and when Powell's last-second potential game-tying three-pointer missed the target and Terry collected the rebound, Illinois could finally breathe easy.
"It felt good (to win). We've been working really hard and with kind of how the season's been going so far it's easy to get down on yourself and stop fighting and stop believing in what you're doing," Beasley said, as the Illini have a day off Monday before beginning preparations for Thursday's game at Purdue (11-6, 2-3). "Those losses, they kind of get to you sometimes. This win is big for us as motivation to keep believing in what we're doing."