Gophers get taste of Big Ten action in first loss to Illinois

The Gophers lost the battle on just about every front, and that is not a recipe for success against the No. 13 team in the nation.


Emily Pofahl

Gophers forward Eric Curry challenges a defender at Williams Arena on Thursday, Dec. 10. The Gophers went on to defeat the Kansas City Roos 90-61.

by AJ Condon, Sports Reporter

A cold streak over the majority of the first half proved to be a feat too high for the Gophers’ men’s basketball team to overcome against No. 13 Illinois. The Gophers were outrebounded, outshot and overall outplayed in a 92-65 loss to end their undefeated season.

After allowing an early 18-10 lead with just under seven minutes gone, the Fighting Illini flipped a switch. Early on, the Gophers relied on big men hitting outside shots, which wasn’t going to last all game. They started out 5-of-8 from the field and it was all downhill after that.

Junior Liam Robbins saw himself on the bench early with foul trouble, and Kofi Cockburn made easy work against the Gophers’ other bigs. The 7-foot sophomore had little trouble in the paint with Robbins out and sparked Illinois’ run. He finished with 16 points in the first half and 33 in the game.

“We needed [Robbins] on the court and Kofi does that to you, puts you in foul pressure, foul trouble then you have to sub and it’s just hard. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to put him in foul trouble. He was terrific, he was catching it so deep, it was hard to help, it was hard to trap because he was going quick,” head coach Richard Pitino said.

Cockburn proved his dominance even when Robbins was in the game. He showed why he is one of the best bigs in the Big Ten, and that the Gophers’ have their work cut out for them when Luka Garza is in the building.

Throughout the game, Illinois dominated the fastbreak and paint game. The Gophers have usually found much of their success moving quick from defense to offense, but it wasn’t there Tuesday night. The Fighting Illini outscored the Gophers 23-4 on the fast break and 48-14 inside the paint.

“I think we were attacking well, finding openings throughout their defense. Taking good shots, not taking rushed shots which led them to transition which we kinda did. They got to their transition after the second media timeout and that’s what hurt us a little bit,” junior Gabe Kalscheur said.

Before picking up two fouls early, Robbins was a part of the Gophers’ quick start. He drilled his first two shots after Cockburn left him open from deep. After that, Robbins saw the bench for the rest of the first half and the Gophers started to struggle.

The second half wasn’t much different for the transfer, as he picked up his fourth foul about seven minutes in and returned to the bench. Robbins eventually picked up his fifth foul and ended his night with 10 points.

“His confidence is fine, really, it’s not really a confidence thing, it’s just sometimes when you’re on the road, stuff doesn’t go your way. Just pick up a few quick [fouls] in the beginning that you maybe wanna take back. It’s just about being smarter,” redshirt junior Marcus Carr said.

Even with Robbins on the court, Cockburn and the Fighting Illini were dominating the glass. They outrebounded the Gophers 53-35 with Cockburn having 13 of them.

The struggles were all too evident for the Gophers, but one of the biggest issues came from their two best players on offense. Carr and junior Both Gach couldn’t buy buckets. Carr was able to use his speed to drive to the rim and draw fouls, as the majority of his points came from the line.

Carr and Gach have been two dominant forces on offense for the Gophers in their nonconference games. Tuesday, they were the complete opposite from their first six games.

Carr had 12 points in the first half solely because of his 7-of-8 shooting from the charity stripe to go along with 2-of-8 from the field. Gach was held scoreless most of the game and finished 0-for-9 with one point, with his partner in crime finishing with 16 points on 3-for-13 shooting.

“[Both] is a really good player and it just seemed like it was snowballing a little bit, missed a couple layups at the basket. It was just one of those nights for him, he’s a terrific player, I have no doubt he’ll bounce back and be fine,” Pitino said.

Carr and Gach weren’t alone in the offensive struggles. During a 21-3 run put on by Illinois, the Gophers made just one of 17 shots and finished the first half shooting just 23% from the field. That run continued and finished at 30-11 over the final 13 minutes of the half.

“First of all, we weren’t hitting shots, which is tough on the road. Our offense was a little bit stagnant, we weren’t flowing as much, getting down to the post,” Kalscheur said.

The shooting wasn’t the only issue during the run. As mentioned earlier, with Robbins on the bench, Cockburn and the Fighting Illini dominated the paint play. They finished the first half with a 22-2 scoring advantage inside and outrebounded the Gophers 29-19.

The offensive struggles for the Gophers continued in the second half, as they saw their deficit continue to grow over the final 20 minutes. They shot 28% from the field and 25% from deep after starting out 3-for-3.

“This is our first loss of the season, but it’s our first loss of the season. It’s just one, it’s worth one, we can’t let it carry over, we have to have a short-term memory, kinda next play mentality. Go out, have our day off, get back to practice, get better and make sure we’re ready for our next game,” Carr said.

The Gophers have their final non-conference matchup on Sunday when they host Saint Louis, before they return back to Big Ten play.