Gophers dropped at Illinois by 24

Anthony Maggio

ICHAMPAIGN, Ill. – it looked like Minnesota might have a chance. With 14:30 to play, the Gophers men’s basketball team was down only six points to an Illinois squad that blew out its last three opponents at home by an average of 25 points per game.

But rather than closing out their regular season with an energetic surge, the Gophers finished the game with a pathetic whimper. Minnesota suffered the same fate as Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana before them, losing to the Illini 84-60 in front of 16,500 fans at Assembly Hall.

“We broke,” coach Dan Monson said. “That’s something we haven’t done.”

The Gophers (16-11, 8-8 Big Ten), now on a season-long, four-game losing streak, were outscored 35-17 by Illinois’ nearly flawless transition game after cutting the lead to six points.

With a little more than five minutes to play and Illinois up a comfortable 23 points, the fans in the student section knew exactly what this game, barring a deep Minnesota run in the Big Ten tournament, means for the Gophers.

“M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A, what’s that spell?” yelled an Illinois fan. The crowd responded, “NIT.”

The humiliation wasn’t unfounded; Minnesota likely needs at least two victories in the Big Ten tournament to avoid a third-straight trip to the National Invitation Tournament. The Gophers, who will be the seventh seed, will face 10th-seed Northwestern on Thursday afternoon.

Minnesota showed some scrap against Illinois the first time the teams met, losing by six at Williams Arena. And Tuesday at Indiana, the Gophers played arguably their best road game of the season despite losing.

But in the second half of the 27th game of its season, Minnesota looked like a team playing together for the first time.

Down 49-43, the Illini picked up the tempo, while the Gophers were busy deflating. Over the next six minutes, Illinois went on a 15-3 run to break the game open. The final four points of the run came on two ferocious Brian Cook dunks, including a crowd-pleasing alley-oop from Dee Brown.

After a Jerry Holman jumper, a furious Monson did something he hasn’t done since the Sacred Heart game in early January – he yanked all five players on the court.

The wholesale substitutions didn’t help.

Illinois went on a 14-4 run over the next five minutes, giving itself a comfortable 26-point cushion, which it coasted on for the final 3:45 of the contest.

“Sometimes it’s hard for us to stop teams’ runs because we’re not together,” Holman said. “Everyone wants to go off on their own and we’ve got to learn how to stay together.”

The Illini’s shooting success was mirrored by futility on the other end of the floor. While Illinois shot an incredible 51.7 percent for the contest, the Gophers were a miserable 35.3-percent – their third-worst shooting day of the conference season.

Minnesota’s worst shooting percentage of the season was 30.5 percent, in the Gophers first matchup with the Illini.

Holman and Rick Rickert led Minnesota with 12 points apiece, the lowest point total for a Gophers leading scorer this season. Maurice Hargrow was held to four points, his second lowest tally of the year.

“If you don’t come ready this is what’s going to happen,” Hargrow said. “We got embarrassed.”

Minnesota now has three days to rediscover how to play as a team and with energy, or the Gophers seniors will get another opportunity for a game at Williams Arena in the NIT.

But if Minnesota beats Northwestern on Thursday, it faces Illinois once again.