MINNEAPOLIS – Fighting Illini women's basketball earned its first Big Ten victory of the season on Sunday, defeating the 12th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers in an afternoon thriller. The Orange and Blue used a strong second half to stay close to the Gophers, taking the lead with just over two minutes to play. Freshman Arieal Scott sealed the, 66-62, Illini victory with a late three-pointer, marking her third of the day. Junior Brandi Beasley led Illinois with 18 points and five steals, and Minnesota native, Alex Wittinger contributed a season-best six blocks in the victory. Illinois improves to 9-5 on the season and 1-2 in Big Ten play.
"We had a game plan, but I thought Minnesota came out and played some fantastic defense," head coach Nancy Fahey said. "So, at halftime we made some adjustments. I'm just so proud of the kids, we were down by 14, but they kept believing and following the game plan in the second half."
The Illini and the Gophers traded baskets early on Sunday, with Minnesota taking the advantage to start the day. The Illini played tough defense in the opening frame, holding Minnesota without a three-pointer to keep the score tight. Junior Courtney Joens was hot off the bench for the Orange and Blue as she netted back-to-back three pointers to close in on the Gophers and take the lead. Earning her first career start, freshman J-Naya Ephraim dished three assists to start the game and match her career-high.
The Illini continued to fight into the second stanza as Joens and Ephraim combined for consecutive buckets in response to a Minnesota three to start the quarter. Illinois and Minnesota traded the advantage in the quarter, but a 16-0 Gopher run gave Minnesota a 35-21 lead at the halftime break. Joens added four more points for UI in the second quarter, and led Illinois with 10 first-half points. She was 4-for-4 from the floor with two treys to open the game.
Illinois was tough out of the break, trading buckets with the Gophers to start the second half. The Illini picked up momentum defensively in the third quarter, holding Minnesota without a field goal for more than five minutes in the period. The Orange and Blue went on a 14-2 run in that span, allowing just two free throws from the home team. Junior Ali Andrews was an important contributor for Illinois as she knocked down seven points in the quarter. Wittinger added four points for the Orange and Blue, also grabbing five boards and two rejections in the third quarter. Minnesota took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter on Sunday, but Illinois continued to fight back.
UI started the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run to cut into Minnesota's lead, seeing consecutive buckets from junior Brandi Beasley. Illinois continued to keep it a one-possession game throughout the fourth quarter as the two teams battled it out. With just over two minutes to play, Wittinger netted a layup to give UI a lead, but Minnesota responded. Beasley came back with a jumper of her own for the Orange and Blue, and Scott followed that up with a three-pointer in the last minute of play. The Illini held Minnesota to 36-percent shooting on Sunday, and knocked down nine three-pointers on the day. The Orange and Blue held the Gophers to just nine points in the final frame.
Sunday's victory marks Illinois' first win over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 17 Iowa on January 8, 2015 and UI's first win over a top-15 opponent since defeating No. 9 Kentucky in 2014.
UI returns to the State Farm Center on January 9, hosting the Scarlet Knights at 7 p.m. The game will mark Faith and Family Night, offering $3 tickets for all religious groups. The game will be streamed via BTN Plus, and fans can listen in on WDWS AM-1400. Illinois will then travel to Penn State for a weekend contest on January 12.