Illinois sneaks past Gophers, 67-64

Murali Balaji

CHICAGO — Moments after its stunning 67-64 loss Thursday night, the Gophers men’s basketball team walked off the United Center court stunned and bewildered, still trying to grasp what had just hit them.
The thought of losing a first-round game to 11th-seeded Illinois in the Big Ten tournament — which had been the furthest thing from the Gophers’ minds when the evening began — had just become reality.
At the postgame press conference, Gophers seniors Kevin Clark, Miles Tarver, and Quincy Lewis sat alongside coach Clem Haskins in dejection, trying to account for what went wrong. The fact that the momentum they built after two consecutive wins had been crushed left the team — and its fans — searching for answers.
“You’ve got to give Illinois credit,” Haskins said. “They played outstanding basketball against us.”
Outstanding was a fitting description of the play of Illinois freshman guard Cory Bradford, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year on Monday and led all scorers with 22 points, and the Illini defense, which held Lewis to a season-low eight points on 3-of-17 shooting.
“My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball,” Bradford said. “I think we did a great job of finding the open shot tonight.”
“It just wasn’t my night tonight,” said Lewis as he tried to hold his emotions in check. “We tried to establish a rhythm, but we couldn’t get it done. You can’t blame anything — it was just one of those games.”
The game started out exactly the way Illinois wanted — bland and controlled. The Illini dictated the tempo early on by playing a contained halfcourt set and controlling the offensive boards with center Victor Chukwudebe and forward Robert Archibald.
Bradford kept the Gophers’ defense honest by penetrating early and often to the basket, and his back-to-back three-pointers gave the Illini a 16-7 advantage midway through the first half. Illinois kept its comfortable advantage for much of the first half by stifling Lewis on the other end of the court.
Of course, Minnesota’s self-destruction throughout the half significantly aided the Illini cause. The Gophers’ putrid 6-of-24 shooting from the field and 14 turnovers through the game’s first 20 minutes, as well as their inability to find any sort of offensive rhythm, put the team in a hole out of which it was ultimately unable to climb.
“They forced us into a lot of turnovers,” Haskins said. “They made it very difficult for Quincy to get good looks at the basketball and they took advantage our mistakes in the first half.”
Chukwudebe’s tip-in of a Lucas Johnson miss gave the Illini a 15-point advantage with just over five minutes to go in the first half. Illinois — which had preyed upon by conference opponents for much of the season — began to sense the Gophers’ frustration and went for the jugular.
The Illinois offensive attack was relentless. After Lewis — who was thrown completely out of sync by Illinois’ combination defense — picked up his third foul in the waning minutes of the half, Johnson nailed a three-pointer to give the Illini a 33-11 lead.
“I don’t think it was so much him being frustrated,” Chukwudebe said of Lewis. “I just think we did a great job on him and worked real hard to contain him.”
A short Minnesota run led by Clark lowered the deficit, but it was too little, too late. The teams entered the intermission with Illinois firmly on top, 38-23.
The Gophers began the second half with more energy, using a Lewis fastbreak layup and a Kevin Nathaniel free throw to cut the Illinois lead to 13. But despite a renewed assault on the boards, Minnesota was unable to take advantage of its fastbreak opportunities.
Enter Clark. After being limited in his shot selection, the 6-foot-2 senior converted on a four-point play (three-point shot plus the foul), bringing the Gophers to within seven.
Illinois then began to unravel offensively, playing much like the way Minnesota played in the first half. Missed shots and turnovers on three consecutive trips down the court gave the Gophers a second chance to climb back to within striking distance.
Clark’s free throws made it 41-39 with 11:43 to play, and the Gophers began to resemble the team that played its final three games with confidence and composure. Kyle Sanden’s reverse layup gave the Gophers a momentary lead, but Bradford answered with an unlikely three-pointer to make it 47-45.
“It was a contested shot, but I was fortunate to bank it in,” Bradford said. “I think that kind of got us back into the game.”
But Bradford wasn’t finished. The Big Ten’s biggest freshman added another pair of field goals from beyond the arc, giving the Illini a 55-49 lead with less than six minutes remaining.
Chukwudebe, who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, also stepped up in the game’s critical moments. The chiseled 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior asserted himself as a rock in the post, hitting a key turnaround jumper with 3:20 to go and stripping the ball away from Tarver on the other end of the court.
The Gophers chipped into the lead, cutting it to 62-59 on a free throw by Nathaniel with 1:49 remaining. But Illinois didn’t let its advantage slip away again, using a free throw by forward Damir Krupalija with 1.3 seconds remaining to seal the win.
While Haskins remained undaunted in his belief that the Gophers deserved to be in the NCAA tournament, he left open the possibility that tonight’s game may have swayed some voters on the selection committee.
“I think we didn’t play Gopher basketball in the first half, but this isn’t the game you evaluate us on,” he said. “You evaluate us over the whole season, and I think, based on 26 games, we are one of the top 64 teams in the country.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, that determination is no longer in their own hands.

Illinois 38 29 67
Minnesota 23 41 64

MINNESOTA
Lewis 3-17 1-2 8, Tarver 3-5 6-7 12, Przybilla 3-8 0-0 6, Clark 4-10 9-13 19, Nathaniel 2-6 3-6 7, Ohnstad 0-0 1-2 1, Simmons 0-0 0-0 0, Stanford 1-3 2-2 4, Broxsie 0-1 0-0 0, Rychart 0-0 3-4 3, Sanden 2-6 0-1 4. Totals 18-56 (.321) 25-37 (.676) 64. Three-point goals 3-13 (Lewis 1-6, Clark 2-5, Stanford 0-1, Sanden 0-1),Rebounds 43 (Tarver 8), Assists 12 (Nathaniel, Clark 3), Turnovers 15 (Tarver 3), Steals 13 (Nathaniel 5).

ILLINOIS
Krupalija 2-5 4-5 8, McClain 1-6 0-1 2, Chukwudebe 6-12 0-0 12, Bradford 8-16 0-0 22, Brown 0-4 0-0 0, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Hawkins 2-2 0-0 4, Mast 2-2 3-5 7, Archibald 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 3-6 5-5 12. Totals 24-54 (.444) 12-17 (.706) 67. Three-point goals 7-15 (Bradford 6-7, Johnson 1-3, Krupalija 0-2, McClain 0-2), Rebounds 35 (Chukwudebe 10), Assists 19 (McClain 6), Turnovers 18 (McClain 4), Steals 8 (McClain 3).