The Gophers men’s basketball team’s best chance yet to seize that elusive first Big Ten victory fell apart in an instant in overtime.
The Gophers looked like they might finally break their month-plus losing streak after pushing ahead late in the second half Saturday night, even after Illinois pushed back to tie the score with under 30 seconds to play. But at the end of a red-hot night, Nate Mason’s long three-point attempt with a second remaining in regulation was off the mark, and the Gophers lost all semblance of fight in the extra session, tumbling 76-71 at Williams Arena.
“That was definitely not the play that we wanted to run,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I didn’t want an NBA three at the end.”
Instead, it was Illinois that came out refueled, holding the Gophers without a field goal for the first 3 minutes, 57 seconds of overtime while scoring the first 11 points of the period to sprint away with the victory.
“We were a little bit stunned,” Gophers freshman Jordan Murphy said. “We were stunned the whole overtime.
“We’ve got how to learn how to finish games … Coach said we’ve got to learn how to lose before we learn how to win. I think we’ve done enough of that.”
The Gophers (6-14, 0-8 Big Ten) have lost nine games in a row and 12 of 13. It’s their longest losing streak since the 2006-07 team lost its final nine games, including its Big Ten tournament opener. One more loss will give the Gophers their longest skid since the 1986-87 team dropped 16 in a row.
Illinois (10-10, 2-5) picked up its first true road victory since Feb. 7 of last year at Michigan State with the help of Malcolm Hill, who had 28 points and 10 rebounds.
The Gophers led 60-55 with 2:03 to go in regulation after a 14-2 run appeared to put them in control, but three of four free throws rattled out — two the front ends of 1-and-1s — to open a window for Illinois. Kendrick Nunn hit a three-pointer before Hill’s two free throws tied the score at 60-60 with 32 seconds left.
Gophers players said their final play was meant to be a dribble drive off a screen at the top of the key, but senior Joey King claimed he missed the pick because he was out of position.
“I made a mistake and I tried to correct it, but there were already 7 seconds left on the clock so we had to kind of just spread out and let Nate go to work,” King said.
In overtime, the Gophers fouled twice and turned the ball over three times in the first 3:48, enabling Illinois to charge ahead by 13.
The Gophers went only 6-for-12 on free throws and were outrebounded 49-38, factors that combined to spoil big nights for Mason (19 points, seven assists) and King (20 points, six rebounds).
After making only three of 14 three-pointers in the first half and trailing 35-30 at the break, the Gophers used a long-ball flurry to charge back. The Gophers drilled four in the first seven minutes of the second half to go up 46-43, and they responded to a 10-0 Illinois run with that 14-2 run, which included three shots from beyond the arc by Mason.
The Gophers threw up 36 attempts from beyond the arc, their most this season, with the Illini zone packing the paint.
“Too much,” Pitino said. “I don’t want to shoot that many. We kept talking about driving the zone, getting two on the ball, attacking. We just didn’t do that.”