CHICAGO – Sifting through what transpired in the final three minutes against Illinois on Thursday, Gophers coach Tubby Smith knew his team wasted chances.
The Gophers held a 49-46 lead when Trevor Mbakwe missed a jumper with 1 minute, 59 seconds to play and handed Illinois a chance to close the gap. After Brandon Paul rebounded Mbakwe’s miss, the Illini collected four offensive rebounds as Tyler Griffey missed a jumper, Nnanna Egwu blew a layup and D.J. Richardson clanked two three-point attempts. A determined Richardson finally found the sweet spot, sinking a trey to tie the score at 49 with 47 seconds left and setting the table for a last-second 51-49 Illinois victory.
“We had many opportunities there to kind of put the game, not necessarily away, but you know, [Illinois got] three or four offensive rebounds there when they made the three,” Smith said. “But in the end, we just didn’t get the stops that we needed.”
Minnesota still had a chance to win it, but when the Gophers were unable to get a play together, Smith called two timeouts. After the last, the inbounds play was muffed when Andre Hollins couldn’t get open and Austin Hollins, barreling toward the sideline, grabbed Rodney Williams’ pass and stepped out of bounds, turning the ball over with 14 seconds left. Illinois’ Brandon Paul took advantage of it, making a buzzer-beating jumper.
“The object was to get the ball in — that was the first key,” Andre Hollins said. “We just turned the ball over.”
Mbakwe’s foul trouble
Mbakwe took a seat on the bench early in the first half for the second consecutive game because of two quick fouls. When he picked up his second, with 13:02 remaining until halftime, the sixth-year senior was fuming as he grabbed a towel and headed for his seat. He knew, based on one of Smith’s unwritten rules, that he wouldn’t go back in until the second half.
“I feel like I let my team down picking up those two fouls,” Mbakwe said. “That’s usually how we play. Coach doesn’t want to jeopardize us too much with us picking up that third foul. I knew at that point I was likely going to sit the rest of the first half.”
Afterward, Smith said he had considered letting Mbakwe return before halftime, but ultimately decided against it.
In or out?
Asked whether he still felt confident the Gophers (20-12) would hear good news on Sunday when the NCAA selection committee announces the tournament field, Smith’s reply was somewhere between encouraged and concerned.
“We’ll be wondering and hoping,” he said. “We have a good résumé. We haven’t played well of late, but when you look at the entire body of work, I think we have done enough. But it’s not up to us. It will be interesting to me. It will be a sweat-it-out type of thing.”