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Updated: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 10:33 PM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL RECAP
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(11) Illinois 76, Minnesota 70
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Illinois Fighting Illini
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MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Minnesota Golden Gophers
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MINNEAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Illinois lost a spark when Brian Cook picked up his third third foul early in the second half. That's when Sean Harrington stepped in.

Harrington hit three of his six 3-pointers in a span of 61 seconds as the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini held off Minnesota, 76-70, in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams.

The top 3-pointer shooter in the Big Ten at just under 53 percent, Harrington finished with a career-high 22 points. His last 3-pointer gave Illinois (11-1) the lead for good at 70-67 with 2:24 to play.

"This is a huge win for us, no matter what," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "Minnesota is not going to drop too many games in this building, if any more at all this year. We are fortunate to come out with a win."

Illinois posted its ninth straight victory over Minnesota (8-4) and has won three straight since suffering its only loss at Memphis on December 28.

The Golden Gophers erased a 62-55 deficit to tie the contest at 67-67 on Maurice Hargrow's two free throws with 2:37 left. Harrington answered with a jumper from the left corner, and the Golden Gophers managed only one basket thereafter.

Luther Head and freshman Dee Brown gave Minnesota a chance by each missing a pair of foul shots in the final minute. But the Golden Gophers' hopes ended when Ben Johnson missed a 3-pointer with nine seconds left and the Fighting Illini holding a 74-70 lead.

"Our free-throw shooting at the end there was causing us trouble," Self said. "The way we won this game made it bigger."

Minnesota stayed in the game by making 29-of-34 free throws, but shot just 30.5 percent (18-of-59) from the field, including just 5-of-26 from 3-point range.

"Coach (Dan Monson) always tells us that if we're going to lose, it's going to be because of our shooting," Johnson said. "That was exactly the case tonight. If a few of our shots would have fallen, it would have been a whole other ballgame."

Cook, who finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, made a pair of free throws from with seven seconds left to cap the scoring. He was 13-of-17 from the field.

Michael Bauer scored 17 points for Minnesota. Rick Rickert added 12, but was held to just three in the second half and finished 5-of-19 from the field. Hargrow added 10, going 10-for-10 from the line.

With Cook on the bench, Hargrow converted two foul shots to give the Golden Gophers a 46-42 lead with 13:05 to play. Harrington drilled 3-pointers on each of Illinois' next three possessions, giving the Illini a 51-46 lead with 11:23 remaining. He started his burst with 12:22 to go.

"There was a key stretch in which we lost control and let Sean Harrington shoot three perimeter shots in one minute," Monson said. "We took care of the ball with our rebounding and committing only 10 turnovers."

The Illini were sloppy at times in the first half and experienced two droughts where they went five minutes without a field goal. But they grabbed a 36-33 halftime lead on the strength of 15 points by Cook.

"We are not where we need to be, but this game is definitely a step in the right direction," Self said.

A preseason Big Ten co-Player of the Year - along with Rickert, Cook has scored at least 20 points in nine of his 12 starts this season after serving a two-game suspension.

But Cook was forced to the bench shortly after picking up his third foul with 16:47 left in the contest. The foul came during a eight-minute field goal drought for the Illini, who shot 46 percent (23-of-50).


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