Gophers fall to Illinois

Jace Frederick

Woof.

Heading into a matchup at home with the last-place team in the Big Ten, the Gophers looked like a good bet to get back to .500 in conference play.

But after shooting a woeful 4 for 25 from deep and committing 15 turnovers, the Gophers took a step back on Wednesday night in their 62-49 loss to Illinois.

“We picked the wrong time to play our worst game of the season,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said.

It was arguably Minnesota’s worst loss of the season. 

The Gophers were outplayed on both ends of the court and seemed to play with a lack of focus a team firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble should have.

“If we play like that, we have no shot [of making the tournament],” junior center Elliott Eliason said. 

Minnesota actually started the game well. The Gophers jumped out to a 14-3 lead on the strength of a pair of 7-0 runs early.

But Illinois mounted a charge, thanks to some hot shooting from the outside, to close the gap to 27-24 at the break.

“We jumped out to a nice lead,” Eliason said. “I don’t know what we thought we were going to do, if we thought we were just going to walk away with it. … We just stopped playing I guess, and we lost.”

The Gophers continued their struggle to defend the triple. Illinois shot 8 for 13 from deep. The Illini came into the game shooting a shade under 31 percent from three.

Freshman guard Kendrick Nunn scored 19 points on 5 for 7 shooting from beyond the arc. He’d previously made 17 triples all season.

“We made some mistakes,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. “I’m not going to say they made tough shots. … A couple of defensive rotations where we made some mistakes and they made us pay for it.”

And for Minnesota, the second half was even worse.

The Gophers committed 12 turnovers in the final 20 minutes, including two inbound violations.

“We just did some unspeakable things,” Pitino said. “Why? I don’t know. We haven’t done it all year.”

Mathieu was pulled from the game early in the first half with two fouls, and didn’t return until after the break.

He finished the night with just three points, three assists and three turnovers. The Gophers fell to 0-6 in conference play when Mathieu doesn’t hit the 10-point mark.

“I just made dumb plays,” Mathieu said. “Throwing the ball all over the place.”

Mathieu struggled with Illini traps off of ball screens. It was a similar defensive attack to the one Nebraska threw at him earlier this season, when he committed nine turnovers.

“Every game that I’ve been trapped on ball-screens I’ve struggled,” he said. “I’ve got to get back in the gym and work on that.”

The Gophers couldn’t get the ball inside, despite the poor shooting performance. 

Illinois pressure defense forced Minnesota into countless tough shots, which led to miss, after miss, after miss.

“We kept saying ‘stop shooting threes, drive it, go inside’’” Pitino said. “And we just kept settling. We’ve got to learn from that.”

The Gophers have to learn quickly. Their next three games are against Top-25 opponents — starting with Saturday at Ohio State.

“There’s a lot of basketball to be played,” Pitino said. “We don’t talk about the NCAA Tournament, I really believe that. And I’m not going to talk to them about it tomorrow, I”m going to talk to them about all the little things that we made a lot of mistakes on.”