Illini’s strong second half sinks Minnesota

The Gophers were outscored 45-27 during the final 20 minutes of play.

The streak lives on.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team fell to Illinois for the 18th straight time Tuesday night – continuing the longest current losing streak by one Big Ten team to another conference opponent.

The latest shortcoming for the Gophers against the Illini, a lopsided 84-60 loss in front of 12,773 at Williams Arena, put a Minnesota NCAA tournament at-large berth on life support.

The Gophers (15-8 overall, 5-6 Big Ten), who haven’t recorded a victory over an Illinois team since Feb. 3, 1999 (and that victory isn’t official because it had to be vacated as a part of the Clem Haskins era) went cold from the field when Illinois got hot – a combination that led to their worst loss of the season.

Led by junior guard Trent Meacham, who scored 13 of his game-high 19 points in the second half and went 5-for-5 from three-point range, coach Bruce Weber’s team transformed a six-point halftime lead into a lead of as many as 26 by shooting 60 percent in the second half, while the Gophers shot 8-for-39 in the final 20 minutes, good for 20.5 percent.

Most concerning to Minnesota coach Tubby Smith after the game was how his team allowed the Illini to shoot lights-out from the field.

“Teams have been lighting it up against us recently,” Smith said. “Just pathetic defensively – as bad as I’ve ever seen. That’s because we have guys who just didn’t show the toughness that we needed to show. That’s how you get beat.”

A slow start again doomed the Gophers, who were down as many as 11 on three occasions in the first half.

And every time Minnesota made a mini run to cut into that deficit, the Illini (11-4, 3-9) had an answer.

With Illinois’ two seniors – and leading scorers – center Shaun Pruitt and forward Brian Randle on the bench in foul trouble for the last six minutes of the first half, the Gophers slowly, but surely chopped that deficit to 39-33 at halftime.

A layup by senior center Spencer Tollackson 15 seconds into the second half cut Illinois’ lead to 39-35, but that was as close as the Gophers would come.

Minnesota made just one of its next 15 shots to start the half and eventually saw its shooting percentage plummet from 57 percent at the half, to 33 percent for the game. During that same time period, the Illini caught fire, shooting 60 percent in the second half to take their biggest lead at 73-47 with under five minutes remaining.

“We couldn’t shoot,” Tollackson said. “Nobody could from layups to threes to free throws. We couldn’t make a shot.”

Sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook said dropping back under .500 in the Big Ten days after an encouraging win against Iowa, is a big disappointment

“Not to say anything bad about (Illinois), but their record doesn’t indicate they would do that to us,” he said.

After losing their fourth conference home game of the year, Tollackson said the Gophers may be better suited for the road.

“We came out flat; they came into our house and beat us,” Tollackson said.

“The way we are playing at home, I’d almost rather play on the road right now.”