CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - In the official records, the Gophers' 81-72 double overtime defeat will be recorded as a loss to Illinois. The team that dominated for most of the game won, and the Gophers moved to 0-1 in Big Ten Conference play.
With five minutes left on the final clock, the Illini's Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard -- who finished with 21 and 20 points, respectively -- fueled a 10-2 finishing run for the victory.
But in the come-from-behind effort against a team that has been nationally ranked this year, the Gophers won much more than they lost, showing in their scrappy, dramatic performance that, at the very least, they can hang in the Big Ten.
"I'm glad to see our guys have that fight in them, they have the toughness that we need," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We just need to find ways to win like we did in games early in the season."
For 10 minutes it looked as if they might find that magic again and prove they are, in fact, the real deal. Faced with by far their most formidable opponent this season, center Ralph Sampson III -- who finished with a game-high 22 points and added nine rebounds -- and guard Julian Welch (15) came alive late and the Gophers erased a 13-point second-half deficit to scare Illinois in their own house before finally succumbing.
It was an encouraging sign for the Minnesota players -- none of whom were made available to the media after the game -- and a signal to the rest of the conference that the team is not the pushover some predicted.
"I'm proud of the way our kids played today, they fought hard, they had some chances to maybe put the game away at the end but couldn't at the end," Smith said.
The Gophers have been mostly solid in their nonconference schedule, building a 12-1 record and thriving during a six-game winning streak since their top player and leader, Trevor Mbakwe, went out because of a torn ACL. But without any major opponents on the schedule, many critics are skeptical of the Gophers, wondering just how much can be taken from the early victories.
All season, the Gophers have showed flaws. They have started slow, gotten behind early, gotten crushed by flurries of opponent three-pointers and shown their youth and rawness in mental miscues. Still, in every game except one -- when Mbakwe was hurt against Dayton -- they have found a way to get it done.
But the Illini are no mid- major team, and early on it looked as if the same old mistakes would finally bite the Gophers against Big Ten competition.
The Gophers never led in the first half, and though they hung around, they had enough mistakes to keep them three steps behind.
Their seven turnovers were converted into 11 Illinois points. Sampson went only 1-for-7 from the field. Welch's shooting was erratic. Five minutes before the break, the Illini went on a 12-6 run to go up 37-24 and held a 37-27 lead at the half.
But in the second half, down by 11 with 13 minutes to go, the Gophers staged a 17-6 run to tie the score at 54. Sampson reached down and found another level, helping the Gophers force overtime as the Illini started to look panicked and miss shots, and an Austin Hollins layup sent the game into a second overtime. But the Gophers looked like they ran out of steam in the additional extra session and the Illini, suddenly recharged, notched the victory.
"I'll give Illinois a lot of credit because we kind of came back and we had the wind at our back," Smith said. "We were playing pretty good and they responded."