CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois’ complete annihilation of the Gophers was one of those wretched performances Wednesday night that people will talk about over and over and over again.
Family and friends will text Minnesota’s players about how they can’t let such a loss ruin their confidence. Analysts will pick apart the Gophers’ exposed weaknesses for the rest of the week. Social media, well, that’ll be the worst of it.
Some fans’ knee-jerk reactions will put coach Richard Pitino back on the hot seat.
It’s only one game, but Minnesota’s utterly embarrassing 95-68 loss against the Illini could really do more damage moving forward if the stench lingers.
“We took a major step backwards [Wednesday] as it pertains to our defense and our rebounding,” Pitino said. “We didn’t compete like a Big Ten team physically.”
The Gophers (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten) were supposed to be the Goliath on the boards (third in the Big Ten with a plus-5.7 rebounding margin), but it never appeared that way from the outset. They trailed 51-28 at halftime after allowing a struggling Illinois team to win the rebounding battle 20-9 and shoot 61 percent from the field.
Illini freshmen Ayo Dosunmu (a game-high 23 points) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili combined for 43 points on 17-for-25 shooting. Freshman center Daniel Oturu had 17 points and eight rebounds for Minnesota, which suffered its largest margin of defeat in a Big Ten game since a 30-point loss at Michigan State last season.
“We let a lot of the shots they were hitting affect us,” said senior forward Jordan Murphy, who had only 11 points and three rebounds in 24 minutes. “We can’t let that happen. That’s something we can control, and that’s something we can’t let keep us down.”
The Illini (5-12, 1-5), who stopped a five-game losing streak, hadn’t won since Dec. 15 against East Tennessee State. They beat the Gophers to every loose ball, defended with purpose, owned the glass and attacked the basket like nobody could stop them. They just wanted to win more.
Amir Coffey hit a three-pointer for a 6-5 Gophers lead less than three minutes into the game. That was the last time they had an advantage. Ten minutes later, it was 35-17 Illinois after Dosunmu’s third three-pointer.
In the second half, Oturu’s three-point play made it 54-37. But the Illini extended their lead to 31 points with a 14-0 run, capped by a putback from Bezhanishvili with 13:18 to play.
Junior guard Coffey, who had been averaging a Big Ten-best 23.4 points in league play, was held to only nine points on 2-for-13 shooting. Senior guard Dupree McBrayer’s six-game double-figure scoring streak ended as he had only seven points on 3-for-8 shooting.
The Gophers look overmatched twice before in road losses to Boston College (68-58) and Ohio State (79-59) in the Big Ten opener. Maryland outscored Minnesota by 21 points in the second half of an 82-67 U loss last week at home, but this was different.
Pitino’s team entered Wednesday with victories in seven of the past eight games, including Saturday with a strong defensive effort against Rutgers in an 88-70 win at home.
So why didn’t that carry over to what seemed like a favorable matchup at Illinois?
Part of the rout also seemed to be the lack of team play. Instead of ball movement, there was Minnesota going 1-on-1 offensively and sped up by the Illini pressure defense.
The result was 15 turnovers by the Gophers, who will try to regroup Saturday vs. Penn State at home.
“It felt like that Ohio State game where we were physically getting manhandled,” Pitino said. “This is a grown man’s league. It always has been and always will be. If you’re not physically competing ever single possession, you’re going to get beat. It was a good lesson for us.”