Another chance blown by men’s hoops

by Jabari Ritchie

Illinois’ men’s basketball team entered Sunday’s game at Minnesota ranked 15th in the nation, but when the buzzer sounded to signal their seventh-straight win over the Gophers (16-11, 9-7 Big Ten), the favored Illini stormed the Williams Arena floor as if they had pulled off an upset.

As shocked Minnesota players and coaches half-heartedly ran through their post-game ritual of performing the rouser ñ many not even bothering to mouth the words ñ Illinois (23-7, 11-5 Big Ten) emptied its bench to celebrate in disbelief.

Twenty seconds before Illini guard Frank Williams clinched the 67-66 victory with a driving lay-up with two seconds remaining, the Gophers had possession of the ball, a dead shot clock and a four-point lead.

“I’d rather lose by 20 than lose a close game by one, because those hurt,” Minnesota forward Jerry Holman said. “Those are the worst ones.”

Minnesota, which blew a golden opportunity to earn a probable NCAA tournament bid in its last regular season game, led by nine points with under three minutes remaining but was held scoreless with five turnovers in the final 3:12.

“Normally, in athletics, teams get what they deserve,” said Gophers coach Dan Monson. “I thought our guys deserved the win. They put it all on the line, but it didn’t work out.”

With 20 seconds remaining, a pair of Illini defenders trapped Gophers guard Kerwin Fleming in the key as he attempted to take the ball into the Illinois zone.

Williams forced the ball away from Fleming and it wound up in the hands of Illinois guard Cory Bradford, who immediately converted the turnover into his fifth three-pointer of the game.

“There wasn’t really anything I could do other than what I did,” Fleming said. “I tried to call a timeout and the ref didn’t give it to meÖ. I got pulled, scratched, whatever you want to call it, I got it, but the referee didn’t seem to think it was (a foul).”

Thirteen seconds later, with Minnesota up 66-65, Gophers point guard Kevin Burleson threw the ball out of bounds when he was trapped at the sideline. The turnover gave Illinois a chance to take the lead with seven seconds left.

With less than five seconds remaining, Williams drove to the hoop and made a lay-up over Travarus Bennett for the game-winning basket.

“He’s got a few inches on me, but I can use my quickness over him,” Williams said about Bennett. “Not in a million years will he be able to guard me.”

Before the final few minutes, the Gophers looked to be in top form against the conference co-champions. Not only did Minnesota take a 35-33 halftime lead, but the Gophers pulled down 23 offensive boards, forced 20 turnovers and out-rebounded the Illini.

“Their rebounding killed us on the offensive end,” said Illinois coach Bill Self. “With the number of turnovers we had, we should not have been in this game, but we made some great shots and had some great stops.”

Minnesota posted a Big Ten season-low .348 field goal percentage and leading scorer Rick Rickert fouled out with 2:15 remaining.

“It was very frustrating for me,” said Rickert, who had 18 points. “I wanted to get out and contribute in anyway I could, and the only thing I could do was cheerlead from the side.”