CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Richard Pitino’s frustrated look roaming the sidelines Thursday night had little to do with the Gophers’ defensive effort.
Pitino could make a strong case that it was his team’s best half defensively in a long time. His players contested shots, communicated and crashed the defensive boards.
The Gophers held one of Big Ten’s best basketball teams to its second-lowest-scoring first half of the season. Problem is their dreadful shooting was again too much to overcome in a 59-51 loss Thursday to the No. 19-ranked Illini in front of a sellout crowd of 15,544 at State Farm Center.
“I thought defensively we were really good,” said Pitino, after the Gophers held Illinois to 33% shooting. “We did a good job of getting some key rebounds, but we’ve got to make sure we’re finishing at the basket, finishing through contact and getting to the foul line.”
Sophomore center Daniel Oturu’s layup with just under two minutes to play cut Minnesota’s deficit to 52-51, but Illinois closed the game out with 9-for-10 shooting on free throws to extend its win streak to seven straight games.
Oturu scored 11 of his 20 points in the second half, but he was the only player in double figures for the Gophers (11-10, 5-6 Big Ten), who dropped to 1-7 this season in true road games.
Take away Oturu’s 7-for-13 shooting from the field, and the other Gophers were only 25.5% (12-for-47). The entire team shot 25% and scored a season-low 20 points in the first half.
“I think we just missed a lot of stuff at the rim,” Oturu said. “We always have to play defense like that. It’s nonnegotiable. We have to make teams take tough shots and hold them to one shot and out.”
The last few minutes of Thursday’s game weren’t pretty offensively. But the Gophers seemed like they were going to have a chance to steal a road victory like they did with Marcus Carr’s last-second three-pointer in a 62-59 victory at Ohio State last week.
But Carr, who finished with seven points on 3-for-12 shooting, wasn’t having that kind of night.
After Illinois (16-5, 8-2) used an 8-0 run to take a 36-26 lead, Carr followed up his first three-pointer of the game with an assist by Michael Hurt in transition to pull within six points.
But Carr never scored again, leaving the game after picking up his fourth foul while running into Ayo Dosunmu shooting a three-pointer with 11 minutes left. Dosunmu (13 points) was one of four Illini in double figures, led by Andres Feliz’s 17.
Carr and Gabe Kalscheur combined to score only 13 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Freshman guard Tre’ Williams started in place of junior Payton Willis, who was sidelined for the game because of a shoulder injury. Williams had five points on 2-for-9 shooting.
The Gophers, who shot only 28% in a 70-52 loss at Michigan State on Sunday, need to get their shooting confidence back before a big home game Wednesday against Wisconsin.
“We missed a lot of easy shots, to be honest,” Carr said. “It’s the Big Ten. It’s a physical league. We just have to do a better job finishing.”