Last-second shot ends Gophers’ Big Ten season

Minnesota staged a comeback that ultimately fell short against Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams Jr. makes a basket at the first game of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, March 14, 2013, at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams Jr. makes a basket at the first game of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, March 14, 2013, at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

by Andrew Krammer

Andre Hollins clapped his hands together in frustration as teammate Trevor Mbakwe loosened his ankle braces for the last time at a Big Ten Tournament.

The two players, separated by almost four years in age, hung their heads after a 51-49 loss to Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday in Chicago.

“What can I say?” Hollins said. “We had our opportunity to seal the game and didn’t execute in the end.”

The Gophers staged a comeback that ultimately fell short after falling behind 25-16 at halftime.  

The Illini’s Brandon Paul hit a game-winning jumper with one second left that broke the 49-49 tie and sent the Gophers home.

But Minnesota had its chance.

The Gophers had possession with 14 seconds left and the game tied. Austin Hollins grabbed the inbounds pass but stepped out of bounds after Illinois’ D.J. Richardson pressured him.

The call didn’t go Minnesota’s way and Illinois took possession, marking the 19th turnover for the Gophers.

“I thought I [got pushed],” Austin Hollins said. “We can’t blame it on one play like that. We had a lot of careless turnovers throughout the game.”

The Gophers played stout defense for most of the second half, but Illinois’ offense was one-sided.

Paul finished with 25 points, and three other Illini players had six points each.

“We expected the ball to be in his hands and he delivered,” Mbakwe said of Paul’s game-winning shot.

Thursday’s loss is the second time the Gophers have made a first-round exit from the conference tournament in Tubby Smith’s six-year tenure. Smith’s tournament record in those six years is 7-6.

Minnesota jumped out to a five-point lead Thursday before Austin Hollins picked up his second foul four minutes into the game.

Mbakwe got his second foul just a minute later, and the pair was benched for the rest of the half.

“Looking back, I probably should’ve played both of them,” Smith said.

Smith used a variety of combinations of his six reserves Thursday.

The coach tried moving starter Joe Coleman to the shooting guard with reserve Maverick Ahanmisi running the point. Neither guard is an adequate ball handler, which contributed to Minnesota’s 11 turnovers and nine-point deficit at halftime.

“We knew we played horrible and were only down by nine,” Andre Hollins said. “Took that into account and didn’t hang our heads.”

Smith played only one reserve in the second half — senior Andre Ingram — and let starters Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins play all 20 minutes.

Williams struggles

Williams sat quietly at his locker after the loss, zoning out and lost in his own thoughts in his final Big Ten tournament game.

He said the loss hurt a lot more than the Gophers’ 89-73 defeat at Purdue last Saturday.

“You’d rather lose by 100 than lose by a last-second shot,” Williams said.

The senior finished with five points, two rebounds and four turnovers while playing 38 minutes.

 “This is definitely a tough one to swallow, having it be my last one and the way we lost,” Williams said.

Williams played without the brace he used most of the season because of an injured left shoulder.

But it didn’t seem to free him up at all, as Williams’ dismal performance encapsulated his disappointing final season with Minnesota.

The Minneapolis native has topped 20 points once this year, compared to five times as a junior.

His final games as a Gophers player will be decided on Selection Sunday, when NCAA tournament teams are selected.

 “I’m not too worried,” Williams said. “I’m sure [the selection committee] will see all the good we did and the fight we had in the second half.”