MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Their disappointing Big Ten season nearing its end, the Illinois Fighting Illini at least are getting a good look at their future. If Kendrick Nunn's knees can hold up, the Illini could have reason to be optimistic.
The freshman guard hit five 3-pointers and led Illinois with 19 points as the last-place Illini beat Minnesota 62-49 on Wednesday night, putting a damper on the Gophers' hopes for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Nunn scored 19 points for the second time this month — his first time came Feb. 9 at Penn State, when coach John Groce inserted Nunn into the starting lineup.
"When coach put me in the starting lineup that just gave me more confidence to make plays," Nunn said, adding that he's been battling some tendinitis in his knees for most of this season.
The Illini won for only the second time in their last 12 games thanks to some uncharacteristically good 3-point shooting and solid defense that helped them overcome a poor start. Nunn went 5-for-7 from 3-point range, and the Illini hit eight shots from behind the arc — their most so far in conference play.
"We've been so tough all year, just a matter of things not going our way here and there, small details," Nannann Egwu said. "Like I said the other day, something goes different here or there just a little bit, our record is so much different now."
The "little bit" happened on Wednesday against the Gophers.
Egwu had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, and Tracy Abrams added 13 points for Illinois (15-12, 4-10 Big Ten), which entered the game ranking next-to-last in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage (.308). Abrams also hit all eight of his free throws in the last two minutes as the Gophers tried to mount a comeback.
"You could tell in the huddle, their poise was right on the mark today," Groce said.
Andre Hollins led Minnesota (17-10, 6-8) with 15 points, and Austin Hollins and Mo Walker each added 10. The Gophers have lost six of their last nine games.
"We don't talk about the NCAA Tournament," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "I really believe in that. And I'm not going to talk to them about it tomorrow. I'm going to talk to them about all the little things that we made a lot of mistakes on."
Fresh off a road win at Northwestern over the weekend, the Gophers were in prime position to give their post-season odds a boost facing the Big Ten's last-place team in front of their rowdy home fans. Instead, they struggled to hit shots and their defense allowed the Illini to overcome an early double-digit hole.
The Gophers jumped out to a 14-3 lead before DeAndre Mathieu — Minnesota's leading scorer in its previous seven games — was forced to sit with two early fouls. With the Gophers' floor leader on the bench, the Illini steadily climbed their way back into the game by hitting six of their nine first-half 3-point attempts. Mathieu finished with three points.
"We just stopped playing I guess, and we lost," Elliot Eliason said. "So it was not a good deal."
Illinois outscored the Gophers 21-13 over the final 11 minutes of the first half. Abrams' three with 2:13 left in the half brought the Illini to 24-23. Minnesota led 27-24 at halftime, but Illinois outscored Minnesota 22-8 to open the second half. Nunn had 10 points during that stretch, including back-to-back threes and a fast-break dunk that put Illinois ahead 46-35 with just under eight minutes to play.
"We jumped out to a nice lead in the beginning and I don't know what we thought we were going to do," Eliason said, "if we were just going to walk away with it and they were going to quit."
Despite their record, the Illini insist quitting is the one thing they haven't done.
"For them to get a reward for continuing to fight and handling adversity the way they have makes me feel really good for our players," Groce said.