Three days earlier, the Gophers had fought for a road victory at Northwestern to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
Wednesday night at Williams Arena, they tossed that momentum to the curb, almost certainly crushing their chances with a 62-49 loss to Illinois, a team that had lost 10 of its previous 11 games.
“If we play like that, we have no shot,” center Elliott Eliason said. “So I don’t even know what to think.”
After watching a 14-3 start crumble to only three, 27-24, at the break, Minnesota struggled to regain any effectiveness. The Gophers allowed Illinois — the Big Ten’s worst three-point shooting team at 30.8 percent — to go 8-for-13 from three-point range, while managing to shoot only 37.3 percent from the field themselves. Freshman guard Kendrick Nunn, a Gopher-killer all night long, made five of seven three-pointers and finished with a game-high 19 points.
Andre Hollins led the Gophers (17-9, 6-7 Big Ten) with 15 points, and Austin Hollins looked more aggressive than he has in at least four games (10 points, seven rebounds), but otherwise positives were in short supply. Malik Smith went 0-for-7 from the field and point guard DeAndre Mathieu, after collecting two early fouls, looked completely out of whack. With Illinois (14-12, 3-10) trapping him off ball screens — similar to how Nebraska defended him — Mathieu turned the ball over three times and lost his effectiveness, eventually fouling out with 35 seconds to go with three points and three assists.
“I stunk it up,” Mathieu said. “I picked the wrong time to play my worst game of the season.”
The finish was hard to imagine considering the start.
The Gophers looked to be cruising after getting out to a 14-3 lead on the strength of strong inside play from Mo Walker and two dunks from Austin Hollins.
But when Mathieu picked up his second foul with 11:45 remaining in the first half and came out, Minnesota’s offense stalled. Minnesota allowed the Illini to make six of nine shots from three-point range, while the Gophers, with a bombs-away attitude themselves, went only 3-for-15 from behind the arc.
That one-dimensional offensive attack didn’t change in the second half despite its utter inefficiency. With the guards struggling against Illinois’ perimeter defense, the Illini adjusted to collapse in the paint, making it tough for the Gophers to force the ball inside. While Illinois started the second half on a 22-8 run, Minnesota went only 4-for-25 from three-point range for the game and had only 24 points in the paint.
“It’s pretty disappointing because we kept saying, ‘Stop shooting threes. Drive it. Go inside,’ ” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “But we just kept settling.”
With three ranked opponents ahead in Ohio State (No. 24), Iowa (15) and at Michigan (20) on the immediate docket before finishing with a home game vs. Penn State, the road ahead looks less than conducive to securing a tournament berth.
Before Wednesday, the Gophers were firmly on the bubble.
“We got out to a nice lead in the beginning and I don’t know what we thought we were going to do — if we were just going to walk away with it and they were just going to quit?” Eliason said. “I mean, this was a team that was down 20 to Iowa and came back and took a lead. I don’t know, we just stopped playing, I guess. And we lost.”