Illinois deals U buzz kill

Todd Zolecki

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Minnesota point guard Eric Harris described it as a sting. That’s exactly what a 96-90 loss to Illinois on the road feels like — a sharp pain.
It feels worse when the Gophers men’s basketball team hasn’t lost one in a month, it just earned its highest ranking since 1982 on Monday and when over the course of 10 straight wins, nothing seemed to go wrong.
Tuesday night in Assembly Hall, many things did.
“We’re hurting right now,” Harris said. “We haven’t felt this pain in a while. No loss is good, but I’d rather feel it now and get it out of the way.”
No. 7 Minnesota’s normally deep roster took a blow before the team even left Minneapolis. Sophomore guard Charles Thomas didn’t make the trip because of back pain he has experienced since last week. Thomas’ absence meant freshman Russ Archambault saw a lot of minutes.
Put that into the mixture with constant foul trouble, Illinois’ rally killing 3-point attack and costly errors, and Minnesota put itself into a tough position.
Harris said it best: “We didn’t play smart.” And they didn’t play their usually tough defense. Minnesota has held its opponents this season to an average of 60 points per game but fell asleep at Illinois, giving up 96.
Still, the Gophers hung around in the end. They were down by three points with 26.3 second left in regulation, and eerily similar to last week’s stunning overtime victory over Indiana, the Gophers were in position to shock once more.
It didn’t happen. The game never even came down to a last second shot. Illinois sank its free throws and secured its victory.
The Illini spent much of the game at the free throw line. Minnesota committed 31 personal fouls, some Gophers coach Clem Haskins called silly, which sent its opponent to the free throw line 40 times.
“There were some times when some calls were questionable, but any time you lose on the road you can say that,” Minnesota forward Sam Jacobson said. “We’ve just got to play through it.”
Illini guard Kiwane Garris missed only once at the line. The senior couldn’t hit from the the floor (4-for-11) but made 13 of 14 free throws to finish with 24 points.
While Garris seemed to take momentum away from Minnesota free throw by free throw, junior guard Kevin Turner tried to suck it out all at once. Turner went 5-for-7 from 3-point range — all of his shots coming from the left wing — and finished with a career-high 24 points.
Most of Turner’s looks came with nobody around him.
“We let them get way too many three’s,” Jacobson, who had 15 points in the game, said. “We’ve got to get out there and stay on the three-point line.”
The Gophers shot well from the floor, making 48.5 percent of their shots for the game. But when three of the Gophers’ five double-figures scorers foul out, it caused problems.
Players said after the game the constant foul trouble disrupted the flow of the game.
“That’s the first time it’s happened all year,” Gophers freshman Russ Archambault said. “With Charles (Thomas) gone and Eric (Harris) with three fouls in the first half, it was tough.”
Senior Bobby Jackson did his part by scoring a team-high 21 points and nearly missing a triple-double. He had nine rebounds and nine assists.
But Harris fouled out with 4:57 left in the game and only five points. The official called an intentional foul on the play because Harris got tangled up in Illini guard Matt Heldman’s jersey while chasing a loose ball. Harris said he didn’t try to grab Heldman’s shirt intentionally.
Heldman sank both free throws to get Illinois a 79-78 lead.
“There are good losses and bad losses,” Haskins said. “This is just one loss. We’re still in the thick of things. I said from day one, regardless of the poll, we’re a top 20 ballclub. I believe that. I know for a given fact that we can beat anybody on any given night.”
Just not Tuesday night. The Gophers play at Ohio State on Saturday afternoon.