Slow start too much for Minnesota to overcome

The Gophers shot 39 percent from the floor in the loss.

Zach Eisendrath

Unfortunately for the fans on Wednesday night at Williams Arena, the most excitement came when new head football coach Tim Brewster took to the court.

While Brewster inspired fans with his electrifying antics at halftime, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team couldn’t do the same. The Gophers lost 64-52 to an Illinois team anxious to end its two-game Big Ten losing streak.

The Illini, who came into the game 1-3 in conference play, their worst start in Coach Bruce Weber’s tenure, showed Minnesota they were on a mission to revive their season.

Gophers interim coach Jim Molinari said the first half, in which his team was pounded on the boards and couldn’t defend the perimeter, put Minnesota in a hole it couldn’t climb out of.

For a coach who prides himself on defense, giving up 38 points in the first half and letting Big Ten’s worst three-point shooting team connect on 50 percent of its attempts (7 of 14), was unacceptable.

“Give them credit. They set the pace, they made shots and we didn’t play to our identity,” Molinari said. “If we don’t guard, we have no chance. It’s disappointing because, we need to, at least at home, play better than that.”

Illinois wasted little time, opening the game with a 13-0 run by exposing the Gophers’ depleted interior defense. Illini senior forward Warren Carter scored nine of Illinois’ first 13 points and finished with a team-high of 17 points.

Weber said he was well aware Minnesota (7-11 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) has struggled to defend and rebound in the paint all season, and with junior center Spencer Tollackson sitting on Minnesota’s bench with a broken hand, Illinois capitalized from the onset.

“We were able to get the ball inside early and then kept it going and it got us a win,” Weber said.

And after taking advantage in the post, the Illini (14-6, 2-3) stretched their attack outward.

After watching the Gophers cut the deficit to four, midway through the first half, Illinois hit four three-pointers in five possessions – all of which were part of a 19-2 Illini run which extended its lead to 23.

Minnesota’s big men gave the Gophers some momentum heading into halftime as sophomore center Jonathan Williams blocked a pair of shots and freshman center Bryce Webster threw down a dunk in the final minute of the first half.

That boost of energy didn’t last long however, as Minnesota came out flat to start the second half, much like it did in the first.

But thanks to seven points in less than three minutes by sophomore swingman Brandon Smith, who was playing in his first game since a three-game suspension, the Gophers cut their deficit to 10 with less than six minutes remaining in the game. That’s as close as Minnesota would get.

Williams, who tied a career-high with five blocks, said the team’s slow start was too much to overcome.

“I don’t think we started off with the energy that we should have playing against Illinois,” he said. “If you don’t respond to their tempo, it’s going to be hard to fight your way back into the game.”

Molinari said he warned his players that Illinois, which he called “desperate” earlier in the week, would come out with intensity. He was right.

“That was an NCAA (Tournament) game for them,” he said. “They are not going to want to go 1-4 in the league.”