March 15, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Shaun Pruitt scored 16 points, Brian Randle had 11 and Illinois' post players overpowered Minnesota on Saturday, sending the surprising Illini to the Big Ten championship game with a 54-50 victory.
Tenth-seeded Illinois (16-18) has won now a season-high four straight games and needs to win a fourth game in four days to clinch the conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid. It faces top-seeded Wisconsin, the Big Ten regular-season champs, in the title game.
The eighth-ranked Badgers rallied to beat No. 19 Michigan State 65-63 in Saturday's other semifinal game.
Minnesota (20-13) was led by Lawrence McKenzie with 13 points and Damian Johnson with eight.
Both teams were playing for the third time in three days, and the Golden Gophers had less than 15 hours to recover from their improbable, last-second victory over No. 22 Indiana in the quarterfinals. Minnesota looked tired after the emotionally draining win.
But the Fighting Illini showed no sign of fatigue in becoming the lowest seed to reach the championship game since 1999, when Illinois did it as the No. 11 seed.
The Gophers missed six of their first eight free throws, 11 of their first 17 field goal attempts and got into early foul trouble.
Illinois took advantage, jumping to a 13-5 lead -- a margin they maintained most of the game -- but couldn't break away.
The Illini led 29-23 at halftime, then opened the second half making just 1-of-10 shots.
That gave Minnesota a chance for another comeback. The Gophers also had rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Northwestern and reached the semis courtesy of Blake Hoffarber's buzzer-beater on Friday.
Minnesota opened the half on a 9-3 run and tied the score at 32.
But Illinois recovered, using a seven-point flurry to rebuild a 39-32 lead with 8:15 remaining. After the Gophers closed to 44-40, the Illini delivered a knockout blow by scoring six points in 79 seconds to make it 50-40 with 2:35 left.
They put it away by limiting Minnesota to just two field goals in the final 6:51.
Minnesota's Spencer Tollackson, who sprained his left ankle Thursday and sat out Friday, played 11 minutes Saturday and had five points. But he was limping by game's end.
The loss likely ends Tubby Smith's streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at 14 during stints at Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky.