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Illinois uses late run to put away Minnesota

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The notoriously hoarse Bruce Weber had heard enough.

Asked what must have been one too many questions about ugly Big Ten basketball on Thursday night, the fifth-year Illinois coach summoned what was left of his voice and shouted a defense.

"I'm sick of hearing all the jokes," he yelled. "We guard, we prepare, we play our butts off in hostile environments."

Prime example, according to Weber: the 20th-ranked Illini's 52-41 win over Minnesota on Thursday.

Illinois had three players in double figures -- low double figures -- but defense was the deciding factor.

Damian Johnson, had 18 points -- only four in the second half -- for the Gophers, who made just eight of their 28 shots in the second half (28.6 percent) and didn't score over the game's final 6:21.

They had 20 turnovers, five more than their season average.

"We shot it very poorly because of their defense," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "We didn't take care of the ball and that's a real concern and problem for us. ... They stripped us of quite a few balls tonight and it's amazing how quick their hands are."

For Illinois (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten), the win made amends for an ugly 59-36 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 29. The third-place Illini host No. 9 Michigan State, the conference leader, on Sunday.

Minnesota (20-8, 8-8) finds itself deep in the Big Ten pack and still looking for wins it likely needs to get an NCAA tournament berth.

Mike Davis had 14 points and 11 rebounds, Trent Meacham added 13 points and Demitri McCamey had 10 for Illinois.

All three hit key shots, and Davis had six rebounds, in a 14-2 second-half run that gave Illinois the lead for good and closed the game.

Early on, Weber complained, the Illini weren't ready for a Big Ten-style game.

He watched his players wait for foul calls that didn't come while Minnesota transitioned to offense.

The Gophers opened a 15-9 lead on a layup by Johnson seven minutes into the first half.

"They jumped on us early and our guys seemed to be waiting for fouls," Weber said. "But to their credit, they came back."

The Illini used a 9-0 run to take a 30-23 lead just under two minutes into the second half. The Gophers pulled within 38-37 with just under 11 minutes left on a steal and layup by Blake Hoffarber.

The Gophers took the lead at 39-38 on a basket by Travis Busch but missed a chance to put some space between themselves and the Illini on consecutive misses by the suddenly cold Johnson, a jumper that clanked off the rim and another off the glass.

Davis made two baskets, the second a baseline jumper that gave Illinois a 42-39 lead with just over eight minutes to play.

Minnesota's Ralph Sampson cut the lead to one, but Illinois hit two 3s -- one by McCamey and another by Meacham -- to cap a 10-2 run that made it 48-41 with 4:09 to play.

Defense, Meacham said, keyed the late run.

"We have hung our hat on defense all year," he said. "After they took the lead we really clamped down when we needed to, and it was probably our best defensive effort at the end of a game for us."

Illinois held Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota's leading scorer, to four points, 8.5 below his average and the Gophers finished 1-of-14 from 3-point range.

The teams went to the line a total of eight times, but both called the game physical, even ugly.

Guard Chester Frazier, the hub at the center of Illinois' defense, wasn't complaining.

"I think the refs were fair tonight, they let us play," he said. "It's Big Ten basketball and it's physical."

Davis wasn't ready for a hard-fought game, at least not early, Weber said.

The sophomore forward had his eighth double-double of the season but spent much of the first half on the bench.

"I took him out and let him watch and he came back and responded well," Weber said.

Just a week removed from a 38-33 loss to Penn State -- a game that made the Illini and the Big Ten, according to Weber, the butt of far too many jokes -- the Illinois coach called Thursday's win huge. And he said it was important for Illinois to get past the Gophers and exorcise any memories of that painful loss back in January.

"When we went up there," he said, "they took us out in the alley and beat our butts and beat us bad."

But he doesn't believe the loss rules Smith's Gophers out of the NCAA tournament, even if his conference and its style are the subject of sometimes intense national criticism.

"If everything works out," he said, "I think the Big Ten should get seven [teams] -- if everything works out."