Gophers slip early, fall late 73-59 to Illinois

Mark Heller

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For one half of basketball, an event that occurred during a timeout of Wednesday’s Minnesota-Illinois basketball game at Assembly Hall provided the best illustration — everything went the Illini’s way.
An Illini student had the opportunity to win a two-year lease on a Chevrolet. All he had to do was make a half-court shot.
Count it. Nothing but net.
In a woeful first half exhibition, Illinois manhandled Minnesota in every facet of the game. The Gophers never fully recovered, falling 73-59 in front of 12,977.
But for the Gophers’ second half, there was Terrance Simmons.
And then turnovers. Plenty of those; eleven in the first half, 22 for the game.
While the Gophers (11-8, 3-6 Big Ten) wanted to follow up Saturday’s win against Northwestern, instead the Illini (12-7, 4-4) put a little distance (a game and a half) between themselves and the Gophers.
“Offensively we’re struggling to score because we’re turning the ball over,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “It’s been our inside players, and we’re trying to go to them because they are a strength. Basketball is such a game of aggressors, and Illinois did a great job of putting us on our heels.”
Freshman guard Kevin Burleson hit nothing but net in the game’s first possession, hitting a three-pointer to give Minnesota a 3-0 lead.
But in a flash the Gophers went from being on top, to being toppled. Illinois went on a 20-0 run over the next seven-and-a-half minutes.
“You just saw our season right there, especially on the road,” Monson said. “You can’t play in segments, and you can’t spot people a 20-0 run.”
But Minnesota scratched back. Two free throws by Dusty Rychart ignited a 12-8 spurt that put Minnesota down just 39-28 at halftime.
Simmons (who had a game-high 17 points) and the defense sparked an 8-0 run to open the second half, eventually pulling Minnesota within 47-44 on two free throws by Kyle Sanden.
“Coach (Bill) Walker came to me today and let me really have it,” Simmons said. “I figured if I came out and played hard and made things happen, my team would follow.”
But too many turnovers prevented the Gophers from getting over the hump, and the Illini responded with a 20-8 run to put them back up 67-52 with just under five minutes left. Minnesota never got closer than ten the rest of the way.
“We were real tentative and they were very physical,” Simmons said. “They are as young as we are, so youth can’t be an excuse.”
Unfortunately, not all of them did. Center Joel Przybilla and forward Dusty Rychart combined for 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 turnovers.
The normally high-percentage shooting Przybilla was just 4-for-12 from the field.
With what appears to be many things for Monson and his players to work on in practice, they’ll need to correct things fast. Wisconsin, Indiana, Illini and Purdue are next in line for Minnesota, and right now they could be licking their chops.
“It was just one of those games,” Przybilla said.
Almost. It was another one of those games.

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]