Gophers lose fourth straight; Smith questions work ethic

After Minnesota fell at home to Illinois 71-62, coach Tubby Smith said his players need to look in the mirror for answers.

by Josh Katzenstein

Tubby Smith was not happy on Thursday night.
Following the Gophers’ 71-62 loss to Illinois at Williams Arena, the coach acknowledged that he can’t âÄújust wave a magic wand” to fix their problems.
This after Minnesota (16-8, 5-7 Big Ten) coughed up 16 turnovers and shot just 36.4 percent from the field while missing countless open shots. The slumping Illini, who had lost five of their last seven games, proved to be stronger both physically and mentally than the Gophers and hit 50 percent of their shots in the second half en route to the victory that leaves Minnesota’s lofty postseason hopes in question.
âÄúThey were just more hungry for the win than we were,âÄù said Ralph Sampson III who had 16 points and 11 rebounds. âÄúWe showed it in spurts throughout the game, but we need to stay hungry the whole game and have the desire to win and have the desire for basketball.âÄù
âÄúI think Illinois just wanted it more than we did.âÄù
After hearing his junior centerâÄôs thoughts on the game, Smith âÄî who is in the midst of his first four-game losing streak since his 1995-96 season at Georgia âÄî let his emotions fly.
âÄúYou look in your mirror, and you say, âÄòHey, what am I doing? How hard am I working? Am I putting in the extra time? Am I getting up extra shots? Am I in the weight room more?âÄôâÄù Smith said. âÄúThatâÄôs what it takes.âÄù
Among others, Smith expressed his frustration with Rodney Williams. The sophomore forward shot just 2-for-8 from the field and finished with six points and three rebounds. Williams has reached double-digit scoring just once in his last nine games.
âÄúWeâÄôre not getting much out of Rodney,âÄù Smith said. âÄúHeâÄôs standing around. I donâÄôt know what it is. We try to get him involved.âÄù
ThursdayâÄôs first half featured ugly play by both teams highlighted by 18 total turnovers, 10 of which came from the Gophers. Minnesota shot just 38.7 percent from the field, but only trailed 30-29 at the half because Illinois hit just 30 percent of its shots, including 1-for-7 from 3-point range.
The Gophers went scoreless for a 4 minute, 51 second stretch of the first half, and the Illini used an 8-0 run to grab a 30-21 lead. But the Gophers seemed determined to draw closer to even at the break and used an 8-0 run of their own to cut the halftime deficit to one.
Minnesota quickly regained a lead just 1:14 into the second half, but could never stretch its lead to more than four. When Illinois took a 44-43 lead with 11:39 remaining on a Bill Cole 3-pointer, the Illini never looked back. Despite a brief 51-51 tie, the Gophers trailed the rest of the way.
âÄúWe just said âÄòwho wants it more?âÄôâÄù coach Bruce Weber said.
Minnesota squandered a great game by junior Trevor Mbakwe, who finished with 17 points and tied a career high with 16 rebounds. Mbakwe amassed his 14th double-double of the season in the first half with 10 points and 10 boards.
Senior Blake Hoffarber scored 15 points, but he shot just 3-for-10 from 3-point range and had four turnovers.
âÄúI thought Blake took some bad shots,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI thought that cost us.âÄù
Another thing that cost the Gophers was depth. IllinoisâÄô bench out-scored MinnesotaâÄôs 23-2, including 17 points from senior Demetri McCamey who was among three regular starters that didnâÄôt start due to a recent slump. IllinoisâÄô starting five didnâÄôt miss a beat, led by Mike DavisâÄô 17 points.
Freshman reserve Chip Armelin went just 1-for-7 from the field for the Gophers.
âÄúWe need everybody to come ready to play,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe need everybody to step up and kind of fill the holes that were left.âÄù
Minnesota is just 1-4 in five games since senior point guard and captain Al Nolen went down with a foot injury. The Gophers also miss injured freshman Mo Walker âÄî especially on a night when Colton Iverson missed all four of his shots âÄî and Devoe Joseph, who transferred to Oregon and likely wouldâÄôve filled in for Nolen at point guard instead of Hoffarber.
Last season the Gophers had Joseph and a more experienced squad to sustain the loss of Nolen. Now, Minnesota must rely on three freshmen to elevate their game if they want to end this skid and earn a third-straight NCAA tournament bid.
âÄúWe had some pretty mature kids last yearâĦ Seniors that were men,âÄù Smith said. âÄúRight now we got boys.âÄù