Minnesota bounced by Illini

Illinois beat the Gophers for the 20th-consecutive time, ending Minnesota’s run in the Big Ten Tournament.

by Zach Eisendrath

INDIANAPOLIS – If the Minnesota men’s basketball team was thought to be a team of destiny after the heroics of freshman guard Blake Hoffarber Friday night, that notion was dropped ñ with the Gophers NCAA tournament hopes ñ by early Saturday evening.

The sixth-seeded Gophers were bounced out of the Big Ten tournament Saturday; falling to Illinois for the 20th-straight time ñ yes, 20thñ losing 54-50 in the conference tournament semi-final.

Tied at 32 with just over 10 minutes remaining, Minnesota ñ as has been the case all season ñ couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch to pull out a game they had to have in order to even make a case for an at-large bid into the Big Dance.

“Illinois played some great defense, that’s pretty much how it is each time we play them,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie, who scored a team-high 13 points, said. “We got a couple looks, some shots went in and out and took a tough (loss).”

The Gophers, now NIT ñbound, can thank a slow start plagued with poor offensive possessions and bad free throw shooting for their failure to end the longest active losing streak one opponent has to another in Big Ten play.

They can also thank Illinois senior center Shaun Pruitt, who had 16 points, eight rebounds and three blocks for Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s squad.

From the beginning, Minnesota looked like a team that had used all of its energy the night before and was playing its third game in three days. The Gophers came out flat, missed six of their first eight free throws, and trailed virtually the entire first half.

Minnesota rallied to start the second half and was tied at 32 after a jumper by junior center Jonathan Williams. But the Gophers would get no closer. The Illini went on an ensuing 7-0 run, taking a 39-32 lead when freshman guard Demetri McCamey converted on a three-point attempt. With Minnesota coming away with empty possession after empty possession, Illinois’ lead ballooned to 10 with 2:30 remaining after Illini forward Brian Randle converted on a breakaway dunk.

Minnesota sophomore guard Travis Busch hit a three-pointer to cut the Illinois lead to 54-50 with under a minute remaining, but after a quick Illini turnover, McKenzie missed a midrange jumper with 10 seconds remaining, giving the ball, and the game to the Illini.

After the game, many wondered aloud if the Gophers were a tired team after the dramatics associated with their upset victory over third-seeded Indiana the previous night.

“I didn’t think it affected us, senior forward Dan Coleman said of Friday night’s emotional win. “I think last night, if anything, it added to the adrenaline of this game .”

Said coach TubbySmith: “Mentally and psychologically, you are spent, so it takes time to recover from that, but a lot of that has to do with playing against a very good team, Illinois, which plays with a lot of confidence against us.”