The Gophers took a quick 7-2 lead in Thursday's opening Big Ten tournament quarterfinal, but Illinois came back to score 19 of the next 21 points. Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins both were on the bench for most of the half after picking up their second personal fouls.
The Gophers shot 27 percent from the field in the first half and had 11 turnovers.
Come back to startribune.com after the game for updates.
Read my story on the tasks ahead forTrevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, and my advance for the Big Ten tournament -- which starts today, with the Gophers’ 11 a.m. matchup against Illinois -- here.
Rodney Williams could feel the collective exhale, he said, when the season ended.
The regular season has been rocky for the Gophers, to say the least, and it had been acknowledged both from players and from coach Tubby Smith that the team was suffering from a mental standpoint. Inconsistency – great wins followed by stunning losses – weighs on you at some point, and this team is feeling the burden.
Today, with a first-round matchup against Illinois, the Gophers have an opportunity to start the season anew, on a neutral court, with a blank record.
“Coming into it, and you lose two straight games, that’s kind of tough to come off of,” Williams said. “But when you’re going into tournament play, you get kind of a sigh of relief, because you’re basically starting from scratch. When you get those opportunities, you’ve got to make the best of them and hopefully we can do that.”
The last time the Gophers played Illiniois, they recorded a 57-53 loss in the only game that Williams has missed all season. He was dealing with a sore shoulder then – an injury he’s still wearing a sleeve for, but that isn’t bothering him as much – and Elliott Eliason started in his place.
Asked whether he felt he could be a difference-maker against the Illini, who the Gophers beat the first time around in Champaign, Williams replied:
“I definitely feel like I could make a difference – get out there on their 3-point shots and contest them a little bit. But we’ll see how it goes [Thursday].”
It’s no secret, though, that Williams’ NBA stock has been fading for the second half of the season, when he was supposed to, for once and for all, quiet his critics with some consistent domination. We’ve seen sparks, but more often, his performances have been uninspiring and occasionally lethargic.
His last seven outings have looked like this:
Vs. Wisconsin: 10 points, five rebounds
At Iowa: 0 points, 1 rebound
At Ohio State: 0 points, 1 rebound
Vs. Indiana: Seven points, five rebounds
Vs. Penn State: 10 points, seven rebounds
At Nebraska: 0 points, four rebounds
At Purdue: 13 points, six rebounds
The ups and downs have left his coach baffled as to how to squeeze the most out of his talented forward, who wows on some nights while disappearing on others.
“I’ve been trying for four years,” Smith said. “I think it’s just staying focused, just playing as hard as he can play, every minute and every second on the court. Not taking any time off, just every possession’s got to be all out. I think that’s it. We always tell guys, you can just play harder – that’s the key, just play as hard as you can play. … He’s an in-betweener. He’s not a great outside threat, he’s not a good inside threat. He’s a good all-around player, he’s got to play to his potential, he’s got to raise his level of play.”
If Williams can find the consistency he had during the non-conference schedule, the Gophers could be another step in the direction of a postseason run, that could help to bolster Williams’ draft resume, which is on the rocks, as well as Smith’s job security, which is in the same spot.
“There’s a burden,” Williams said. “But I can’t let that get to me. I can’t go out there worrying about that. I’ve just got to go out there and play and help out my team in any way they need me.”