CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On the night Hollywood handed out the Oscars, the Illinois basketball team could have been in for all kinds of hardware.
On its own, Illinois’ 84-71 victory over Minnesota was certainly not award-worthy, considering that before the game the 13th-place Gophers announced they were suspending starters Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer and its top reserve, Kevin Dorsey, for breaking team rules.
So when the Gophers’ irregulars led 40-32 at the half, Illinois was in contention for “Worst Performance Against a Badly-Depleted Big Ten Opponent.” In fact, it was looking like a shoo-in since Minnesota used just six players for virtually the entire game.
But Illinois’ fortunes changed dramatically at halftime.
First of all, DaMonte Williams, the son of former Illini great Frank Williams, announced on Twitter that he was committing to the Illini. A 6-foot-3, 4-star guard from Peoria Manual, Williams is the nation’s 39th best player in the Class of 2017, according to ESPN.
That news quickly spread throughout the State Farm Center, lifting sagging spirits.
Then new athletic director Josh Whitman made his first-ever State Farm Center appearance. He received a standing ovation as he grabbed the microphone. His pep talk ended with his new signature phrase, “We will win.”
Fans may have doubted that Whitman was talking about Sunday night, but those doubts quickly disappeared when Illinois (13-16, 5-11) came out and played like a different basketball team. It followed one of its worst halves of the season with one of its best, stampeding past Minnesota by making 17 of 23 second-half shots (74 percent) and 13 of 13 free throws.
After letting the team know how poorly it had performed in the first half, coach John Groce disappeared from the locker room, having already instructed team leaders Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to let the team know that vast improvement was an urgent demand.
“When I walked back in there I could tell they had a kind of different look in their eyes,” Groce said.
A 3-pointer by Jalen Coleman-Lands, a basket by Khalid Lewis, a 3-poiner by Hill and a 3-point play by Hill tied the game 43-43 with 17:32 to play.
Fueled by defensive stops it had not been getting in the first half, Illinois took the lead and pushed it to 54-48 before scoring on seven consecutive possessions to grab a 67-50 lead.
Hill had just five points in the first half but finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. Nunn scored 16 of his 25 in the second half. He also had four steals. And Coleman-Lands was 5-for-6 from the 3-point line to finish with 18 points.