‘We got to have pride’: Gophers men’s basketball collapses against No. 5 Illinois

A bad first half got worse for Minnesota when Illinois added a half-court buzzer beater before halftime. It got even worse after the break.

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Parker Johnson

Brandon Johnson rebounds the ball during the first quarter against Illinois at Williams Arena on Saturday Feb. 20. The Gophers lost with a final score of 63-94.

Nolan O'Hara

Just when it looked like a bad first half couldn’t get worse for the Gophers men’s basketball team, Illinois guard Trent Frazier picked off a pass from Gophers’ guard Tre’ Williams and threw up a shot from half court as time expired in the half. It swished right through the net for the fifth-ranked Fighting Illini, who went into the halftime break with a 48-33 advantage.

It was just that kind of afternoon for Minnesota (13-10). The second half went even worse as the Gophers fell 94-63 to the Illini on Saturday at Williams Arena. Gophers’ coach Richard Pitino was visibly frustrated on the sideline throughout the game, players appeared dejected on the bench and center Liam Robbins clearly hasn’t recovered from an ankle injury that’s been plaguing him since Feb. 11.

Illinois (16-5) took advantage of Minnesota’s injuries, lackluster offensive production and bad transition defense in a game that felt very similar to the first meeting between the two teams, where the Illini ran Minnesota out of State Farm Center with a 92-65 victory.

With the injury to Robbins, Illinois center Kofi Cockburn attacked the paint for the duration of the game. The Illini scored 48 points inside, primarily coming from Cockburn, who scored a game-high 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting.

Robbins was stellar on the defensive end in the first half, tallying four blocks, but his ankle only allowed him on the court for 13 minutes.

“[Robbins] has a fighting spirit … He’s gonna try his 100% best to make sure that he’s able to be on the floor with us,” Gophers forward Brandon Johnson said. “And Liam’s my guy, I try to help him as much as I can on and off the floor.”

Without Robbins for much of the game, Minnesota didn’t have the size to match up against Cockburn and the team was bullied in the paint.

And Robbins wasn’t the only player Minnesota missed on Saturday. The Gophers could’ve used their best perimeter defender in starting shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur, who will be out 3-4 weeks after having surgery on his right index finger. Without Kalscheur, Minnesota continually got beat in transition, allowing 31 Illinois points on the fast break.

“They did exactly what we didn’t want them to do, which was their strength, which was transition,” Gophers forward Eric Curry said. “We didn’t take good shots.”

The Gophers did, however, allow good shots. With Robbins limited and Kalscheur out, the Illini found themselves open shots from behind the arc, to go along with the 48 points in the paint. The Illini shot 7-of-14 from three and 56.1% from the field overall.

Frazier led Illinois from behind the arc, making three of his four attempts; he finished with 15 total points. Guard Ayo Dosunmu finished second on the team in scoring with 19 points on 9-for-16 shooting.

“[Kalsheur and Robbins] are our two best defenders. Gabe is our best perimeter defender and Liam obviously is a great shot blocker … I mean we certainly seem a little bit disjointed with those two guys out,” Pitino said. “But we just gotta find a way.”

Minnesota didn’t find a way on Saturday, but what the box score doesn’t show is that the Gophers were within reach of the game for much of the first half. Minnesota took a 16-11 lead early, after point guard Marcus Carr knocked down a pair of 3-point shots. But Illinois quickly went on an 8-0 run to retake the lead 19-16.

From there, the Illini held a lead for the remainder of the game, while the Gophers bench appeared more and more deflated.

“We can’t let guys come in like today and just do what they want to do,” Curry said. “We just got to have pride for the program, have pride for each other and just have each other’s back. We all brothers, we all love each other, we know we got people down, but we just gotta step up.”

One player stepping up for the Gophers was freshman guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., who made his second consecutive start filling in for Kalscheur. Mashburn scored a team-high 16 points and added six rebounds and three assists. He did, however, turn the ball over on five occasions.

Carr, Johnson and Williams also finished in double figures with 12, 12 and 11 points respectively. But it wasn’t the most efficient of shooting, as Minnesota only shot 40.7% in the game.

The Gophers are 2-6 in their last eight games and are currently in the midst of a three-game skid. Minnesota will look to end the losing streak on Feb. 25 when it takes on Northwestern at Williams Arena.

“You can think about the game for the day. It’s a tough loss, especially how everything went down, but going into tomorrow, the game should just be erased from your mind,” Johnson said. “You just gotta come in with that energy and just trying to get better and just looking forward to the next game.”