By Shannon Ryan
MINNEAPOLIS – The shots missed in a variety of ways, as usual.
Illinois missed all but one of its first 11 shots Wednesday night at “The Barn” against Minnesota as the Gophers claimed an 11-point lead in the first 7 minutes of the first half. Illini fans could see where this was headed at Williams Arena.
Then something unpredictable happened. A Jon Ekey 3-pointer, shortly thereafter followed with Kendrick Nunn and Tracy Abrams 3s. The Illini made 6 of 9 from beyond the arc in the first half to trail by only three points at halftime before taking control in the second half of a 62-49 victory.
The Illini (15-12, 4-10 Big Ten) were making a game of it thanks to freshman guard Nunn and veteran center Nnanna Egwu, who helped the Illini put together one of their strongest offensive games in what seems like eons.
The Illini finally felt saw light in what has been an especially dreary winter, winning just their second Big Ten game since early January.
The Illini shot only 32 percent in the first half, typical of their Big Ten worst 36.8 percent shooting average heading into the game. But they finished the game with their best shooting night, at 42.2 percent, since losing to Iowa on Feb. 1 and their highest point total in three games.
Egwu put together another strong performance with 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Nunn again proved his potential with five 3-pointers and a game-high 19 points overall.
Illini coach John Groce said earlier this week that Egwu’s resurgence has been the product of receiving more breaks during games. He followed up on back-to-back double-digit rebounding games with another solid effort.
The Illini took their first lead, 28-27, on an Egwu field goal less than 3 minutes into the second half.
They started the second half with an 8-0 run to build the lead to 32-27, using their defense and Gophers’ turnovers to fuel them. They put together another 12-0 run, punctuated by Nunn’s fast-break dunk, for a 46-35 lead as the Gophers (4-10, 6-8) failed to score for more than 5 minutes.
The Illini hadn’t looked this efficient offensively since their loss to Iowa on Feb. 1. The last time out, Illinois shot only 28.3 percent in a loss Saturday to Ohio State.
Hitting 6 of 9 3-pointers in the first half kept the Illini within striking distance as Nunn made 3 of 4.
Even after the Illini briefly gave up their second-half lead, Nunn hit back-to-back 3-pointers for a five-point lead midway through the second half.
Despite a strong offensive night, Rayvonte Rice, Abrams and Joseph Bertrand still struggled to score, though Abrams finished with 13 points (eight free throws).