While U’s Lewis falters, Illinois’ Bradford shines

Michael Dougherty

CHICAGO — During Tuesday’s press conference, Gophers senior Quincy Lewis said he hasn’t ever met a gym he didn’t like when asked about what it’s like to play at the United Center, the former home of Michael Jordan.
Unfortunately for Lewis and the No. 23 Gophers men’s basketball team, the United Center treated Lewis like Jordan used to treat the defenders who tried to stop him.
Lewis was held to eight points on 3-of-17 shooting as 11th-seeded Illinois (12-17, 3-13 in the Big Ten) upset Minnesota 67-64 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. It was the lowest scoring total for Lewis since Minnesota beat Michigan State in the tournament last season, when he scored seven points.
He also was held to eight in the first game of last year’s tourney when the Gophers beat Northwestern 64-56. His four-game scoring average in the arena is an un-Lewis-like 12 points per game.
And while the United Center was treating Lewis so badly, it wrapped Illinois guard Cory Bradford up in its arms and gave him a big warm hug. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year scored a game high 22 points, including 6-of-7 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.
Bradford single-handedly slammed the door on a valiant Gophers comeback with a three-pointer from about 22 feet out that banked high off the glass before going in. That bucket gave the Illini a 47-45 lead and sparked an 8-2 run which enabled them to control the game.
“After I made that one, I knew anything would fall,” Bradford said when asked about his banked three. “But to answer your question, no, I didn’t call glass.”
His precision from beyond the arc was something that Bradford said surprised him. In the team’s last two regular season games against Iowa and Indiana (both losses) Bradford went a combined 2-of-17 from long distance.
As Bradford was cuddling up and making friends with the backboards and nets, Lewis said he was trying to find a way to remove “a lid on the basket.”
Lewis credited some aggressive Illini team defense for holding him to nearly 18 points less than his conference-leading scoring average of 25.9.
“It just wasn’t my night,” Lewis said. “I want to give my teammates credit. I was just out of rhythm and the team proved they are good enough to play without me.”
Just how good Minnesota really is will be a hot debate over the weekend. Entering the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers were considered a lock for the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota coach Clem Haskins said he is still positive his team will be part of the field of 64, which will be finalized on Sunday afternoon, but this loss to Illinois did not help his team’s case one bit.
“We are confident that we are one of the 64-best teams in the country,” Haskins said. “We feel like this tournament was important in terms of our seeding in the tournament. We have a good power ranking, we’ve played strong opponents and the Big Ten speaks for itself, so we feel we’re in.”
Whether the nine-member NCAA selection committee agrees with Haskins remains to be seen.
Minnesota (17-10) and Purdue (19-12), which lost in overtime earlier in the day to Michigan, now both seem to be on the bubble. The Boilermakers finished a half-game below the Gophers in the Big Ten standings.
If they do get into the tournament, the Gophers will need a little bit of Bradford’s luck to rub off on Lewis, or at least find a way for him to blow that pesky lid off the hoop.