Asked whether he felt the Gophers have the tendency to let a couple mistakes snowball out of control, Elliott Eliason was quick with a reply. Clearly it was something the center had put some thought into.
"You could say that," Eliason said, dropping his head and slowly shaking it. "I prefer the quicksand analogy."
Unfortunately for reeling Minnesota, the analogy could be used for the season as a whole. After their sixth loss in eight games -- this time 57-53 to Illinois -- the No. 18 Gophers made the same mistakes and had the problems that have plagued them all season, and it has taken them to the brink of dropping out of the national rankings.
Once again, poor shooting, a rash of turnovers and nonexistent perimeter defense did in Minnesota (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten), allowing the Illini (17-8, 4-7) to return from a 12-point first-half deficit -- a tired story line, punctuated by an ever-wearying Gophers locker room.
"It happened again," muttered despondent sophomore guard Andre Hollins (eight points, four assists). "We've got to produce."
Hollins was in the camp of those who didn't, combining with Joe Coleman to go 3-for-18 from the field. Both have struggled offensively in the past couple games, but for the Gophers -- who were already without senior forward Rodney Williams, who sat out because of a tweaked left shoulder -- losing another scorer in Hollins proved to be too much, despite junior guard Austin Hollins' 16-point, four-steal effort.
Even so, Minnesota led early and had plenty of chances at the end to send the announced crowd of 14,625 home with a spark of optimism.
Minnesota trailed 54-53 with 2 minutes, 31 seconds remaining after Eliason -- who started at center and responded with a four-point, 10-rebound performance -- scored on a short jumper.
But on the Gophers' next possession, senior forward Trevor Mbakwe (13 points, 10 rebounds), who was double-teamed in the post, sent a skip pass over Coleman's head and it sailed into the stands with 50 seconds left.
"It was a bad pass, I guess," Mbakwe said. "I just kind of saw him in the corner, but he was flashing up; there was just miscommunication there."
Tracy Abrams hit the Illini's 11th three-pointer of the night with 18 seconds left to make it a two-possession game at 57-53, and the Gophers failed to get any closer, sealing the loss.
Although Abrams' final shot was the dagger, the Gophers had been peppered by Illinois three-pointers all night. But before the Illini had hit their stride, the Gophers managed to take an early 26-14 lead, getting solid post defense from Mbakwe and Eliason, and 11 first-half points from Austin Hollins while holding Illinois without a bucket for the first nine minutes.
Then D.J. Richardson got hot -- sinking four three-pointers in the half's final 3:44 as he led a 16-4 Illini run that put Illinois up 31-30 at the break.
In the second half, Illinois adjusted to Mbakwe's early strong play by trapping him in the post, creating a flurry of turnovers that made it difficult for the Gophers to get into any kind of offensive groove.
"We practice it all the time -- throw it into the post, then screen for your teammate on the wing -- so we've just got to do a better job of transferring it to games," Austin Hollins said.
Ditto that for shooting, taking care of the ball and defending the three-pointer.