In some ways, the Gophers’ 51-49 loss to Illinois just made sense.
It had a little bit of everything that has both elated and frustrated Minnesota fans this season:
There were stretches of lethargic play, followed by inspired performances. There were turnovers in bunches, followed by a clutch shot to bring hope.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities of the team showed both of their faces. And in the end, Minnesota was done in by the same things that have plagued it all year: sluggish stretches, costly mistakes and, well, questionable decisions.
The Gophers had every chance to seal a win when they led by three with 2:55 remaining. Illinois – which shot a stunning 32.1 percent from the field overall – was having a tough time finding a bucket.
But Minnesota, after plowing back from a 12-point deficit (that first half was all “Hyde”), suddenly didn’t have the drive to shut the Illini down. When Brandon Paul snagged the rebound off Trevor Mbakwe’s missed jumper, Illinois shuffled through attempt after attempt, grabbing four offensive rebounds –FOUR! – before DJ Richardson finally connected with the 3-pointer that tied the game up, and set the stage for Brandon Paul’s last-second heroics.
Still, the Gophers had a shot to recover, getting the ball with 48 seconds remaining. But unable to get a play together, Tubb Smith called two time outs, and after the last, the inbounds play was muffed when Andre Hollins couldn’t get open and Austin Hollins, barreling toward the sideline, grabbed the ball and stepped out of bounds, turning the ball over.
“The object was to get the ball in -- that was the first key,” Andre Hollins said, uttering a simple statement that is worth being said considering the depth of the Gophers’ issues with inbounds plays. “But the option was either Austin or I, and we just turned the ball over.”
With that, the Gophers’ second-half improvements – going from shooting 27.3 percent from the field in the first half to 55.6 percent in the second – were quickly forgotten. And now, Minnesota heads into Selection Sunday with three consecutive losses (two of them with the adjective “bad” firmly attached) and a less-than-overwhelming argument for the way they finished the season.
In my opinion, the Gophers are still safe: their cache of “good wins,” RPI and strength of schedule is just too good to pass up, especially considering some of the teams that are on the bubble.
But Smith said after the game that he feels less certain:
“We’ll be wondering and hoping,” he said. “We have a good resume. 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.”
- Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins both sat through most of the first half with two fouls each for Minnesota. Mbakwe was clearly agitated as he took a seat, and later questioned the official’s call. He knew he wouldn’t see any time again before the half because of coach Tubby Smith’s strict unwritten rule about sitting a player who has two fouls in the first – no matter the situation. “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.”
- After the game, Smith backtracked somewhat, saying he reconsidered putting the duo back at the time and ultimately decided against it. “We probably could have put him back in there and stopped the bleeding. But again, I have faith in our guys that are coming off the bench. I have faith in them, but belief in themselves is two different things. We got to continue to work on that. Looking back on it, I probably should have played them both.”
- Paul went 10-for-16 from the field while the rest of Illinois went 8-for-40.
- Austin Hollins said he thinks he might have been bumped on the last inbounds play where he took the pass from Rodney Williams, then promptly stepped on the sideline, and clearly he felt badly about the turnover afterward. “I thought maybe I got pushed a little bit, but I can't, I can't say that that caused anything. The game went the way it did. It was out of my hands what happened the rest of the way. Whether they make the call or didn't. And we just got to move on. We were in there throughout the whole game. There were some calls that should have ben called or shouldn't have been called on both sides.”