Minnesota falls to Big Ten-worst Illinois

The Gophers scored 22 points in a sloppy second half.

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino after the 62-49 loss to Illinois on Wednesday evening at Williams Arena.

Cole Feagler

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino after the 62-49 loss to Illinois on Wednesday evening at Williams Arena.

Jace Frederick

Woof.

The Gophers looked like a good bet to get back to .500 in conference play, entering a matchup at home with the last-place team in the Big Ten.

But after shooting a woeful 4-for-25 from deep and committing 15 turnovers, Minnesota took yet another step back Wednesday night with a brutal 62-49 loss to Illinois.

“We picked the wrong time to play our worst game of the season,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said.

It was arguably Minnesota’s worst loss of the season. The Gophers were outplayed on both ends of the court and seemed to lack the focus that a team on the NCAA tournament bubble should have in these types of matchups.

“If we play like that, we have no shot [of making the tournament],” junior center Elliott Eliason said.

The Gophers actually started the game well. They jumped out to a 14-3 lead on the strength of a pair of 7-0 runs.

But Illinois mounted a charge, thanks to some hot shooting from the outside. It closed the gap to 27-24 at the break.

“We jumped out to a nice lead,” Eliason said. “I don’t know what we thought we were going to do — if we thought we were just going to walk away with it. … We just stopped playing, I guess, and we lost.”

The Gophers continued to struggle to defend the triple in the second half. Illinois shot 8-for-13 from deep. The Illini entered the game shooting a shade less than 31 percent from three.

Illini freshman guard Kendrick Nunn scored 19 points on 5-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. He’d previously made 17 triples all season.

“We made some mistakes,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “I’m not going to say they made tough shots. … A couple of defensive rotations where we made some mistakes, and they made us pay for it.”

And Minnesota didn’t do itself any favors in the second half.

The Gophers committed 12 turnovers in the final 20 minutes, including two inbound violations.

“We just did some unspeakable things,” Pitino said. “Why? I don’t know. We haven’t done it all year.”

Mathieu was pulled from the game early in the first half with two fouls and didn’t return until after the break.

He finished the night with just three points, three assists and three turnovers. The Gophers fell to 0-6 in conference play when Mathieu doesn’t hit the 10-point mark.

“I just made dumb plays — throwing the ball all over the place,” Mathieu said.

Mathieu struggled with Illini traps off of ball screens —a similar defensive attack that Nebraska threw at him earlier this season, when he committed nine turnovers.

“Every game that I’ve been trapped on ball screens, I’ve struggled,” he said. “I’ve got to get back in the gym and work on that.”

And the Gophers couldn’t get the ball inside, despite the poor shooting performance.

Illinois’ pressure defense forced Minnesota into tons of tough shots, which led to miss after miss after miss.

“We kept saying, ‘Stop shooting threes, drive it, go inside,’” Pitino said. “And we just kept settling. We’ve got to learn from that.”

The Gophers have to learn quickly. Their next three games are against top-25 opponents — starting Saturday at Ohio State.

“There’s a lot of basketball to be played,” Pitino said. “We don’t talk about the NCAA tournament. … And I’m not going to talk to them about it tomorrow. I’m going to talk to them about all the little things that we made a lot of mistakes on.”