John Groce’s balancing act of a second season continued here on Wednesday night. For a change, after a 62-49 upset victory over Minnesota, the Illini didn’t seem one step closer to utter disaster. Are we crazy, or did this team actually look pretty capable against the Gophers? Pretty confident, determined and, dare we say it, tough? All the criticisms of the Illini (15-12, 4-10 Big Ten) that have mounted for several mostly miserable weeks were answered, at least to some extent, in the team’s second victory in its last 12 games. Many of the criticisms have come from Groce, who simultaneously prods and supports his players. For sure, Groce has laid into them repeatedly about their toughness — or lack thereof — and some of them really responded in this game. It was right on time, too, after Saturday’s 48-39 defeat at home to Ohio State. That was just plain embarrassing. This one was emboldening. “We’re going to continue to get better,” Groce said. “I told those guys: ‘We’re not satisfied with this.’ ” It couldn’t have started any worse. Eight-plus minutes in, the Gophers (17-10, 6-8 Big Ten) led 14-3 and frustrated Illini fans were tweeting jokes about football scores. But then some very good things happened. Surprising things, like center Nnanna Egwu dominating the rest of the game. In his best outing of an often trying junior season, Egwu had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots — numbers that Groce said “[didn’t] even do justice” to the big man’s performance. Egwu, who had a monthlong shooting slump as the Illini’s season fell apart, still appreciates how Groce supported him during that time. “He told me I could go 0-for-10,” Egwu said, as long as his defense, rebounding and physical presence were still there. In this game, the 6-11, 250-pounder put it all together. And freshman shooting guard Kendrick Nunn, who hit five three-pointers, came up huge with his second 19-point game in the last two weeks. Nunn stole the show after a 6-0 run had put the Gophers ahead 35-34. He had back-to-back threes to spark a 12-0 Illini run that ended with Nunn’s left-handed dunk on a play Groce surely loved — not just for the finish but for the loose ball won by Jaylon Tate, Nunn’s former backcourt mate at Simeon, that led to the throw-down. “Road kill,” Nunn said with a satisfied smile.
Illini back on track with 62-49 win over Minnesota
Chicago Sun-Times | Feb 20