(MCT) — MINNEAPOLIS — Illinois’ recent about-face can be partly traced to the mouth of D.J. Richardson.
The senior guard ditched his mouth guard a few games ago, hoping to better communicate with his teammates.
No one is mistaking his message now.
“It sounds like D.J.,” teammate Tyler Griffey said. “Not a muffled mumbled junk that was coming out of his mouth.”
The Illini are delivering just as clear of a message.
After losing six of seven and appearing to head off a cliff, Illinois has regrouped behind its seniors to win back-to-back games for the first time since mid-December with a 57-53 victory Sunday over No. 18 Minnesota. It was an encore performance to Thursday’s home upset against No. 1 Indiana.
NCAA tournament selection committee, are you watching?
“We’re different from last year’s team,” Griffey said.
“We’re just trying to get to the tournament,” Richardson said. “That’s our goal.”
The Illini (17-8, 4-7) are becoming experts in the improbable. The victory ended a 10-game road losing streak to ranked Big Ten opponents.
They overcame an 8-0 deficit that became a 13-2 hole to defeat the Gophers (17-7, 5-6), who had soundly beaten the Illini by 17 points on 52.9 percent shooting with 9 of 15 on 3-pointers in early January. In Sunday’s rematch, Illinois held Minnesota to 38 percent shooting, including just 5 of 17 on 3-pointers.
“The one thing that’s happening now is that our guys are trusting each other more, they’re trusting the system more,” coach John Groce said. “They’re sticking with the game plan, they’re sticking with philosophy even when we’re behind.”
Illinois came back from a 12-point deficit to lead 54-53 in the closing minutes. Point guard Tracy Abrams, who did not start due to his defensive problems, sealed the victory with a 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining. He finished with six assists and no turnovers.
“It’s huge,” Groce said. “Maturity.”
Griffey followed up on his winning buzzer-beater against Indiana with a season-high 16 points and a career-high-tying four 3-pointers.
Illinois made 11 of 23 3-pointers. Richardson, who finished with 13 points, hit three in the final four minutes of the first half for a 31-30 halftime lead.
“Coach had been talking to me about taking over the team and being more vocal,” he said. “I did a good job of keeping us together and doing a lot of talking.”
Illinois had failed to win consecutive games since beating nonconference lightweights Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 11 and 16.
“We want to be an everyday organization, not a game-day organization,” Groce said.