With COVID issues and injuries riddling their lineup, the Gophers started out with only eight players in uniform for Friday's game at Illinois. By the end, they were down to six, after Kadi Sissoko was injured and Klarke Sconiers fouled out with just under eight minutes left.
They could put much of the blame for their 72-64 loss on those absences, but the Gophers' spotty defense didn't help either as they ended the regular season on a sour note. Illinois — which had won only one Big Ten game this season — outscored them 44-22 in the paint and shot 56% in the third quarter. The defeat was the third in four games for the Gophers, who will open Big Ten tournament play Wednesday.
The Gophers (8-12, 7-11 Big Ten) led 45-44 when Sissoko fell and hit her head while scrapping for a rebound with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the third quarter at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. They were outscored 13-6 through the rest of the quarter, including a 6-0 Illinois run at the end of the quarter that broke a 51-51 tie.
Sissoko did not return to the game, and coach Lindsay Whalen did not have an update on her condition. The Illini (4-17, 2-16) got a game-high 16 points from center Eva Rubin, who made eight of 13 shots as Illinois shot 47% for the game.
"[Sissoko] was the best player on the floor,'' Whalen said. "Unfortunately, she goes down. It was obviously tough at that point to not have her back in the game. We're playing the hand we're dealt. It's obviously a tough year.''
The game was the first in nine days for the Gophers, who were coming out of their third COVID-related pause this season. They canceled last Sunday's home finale against Michigan and did not resume practicing until Wednesday.
Already without guard Jasmine Powell, out with an ankle injury, COVID issues thinned the roster further. Redshirt freshman Grace Cumming pitched in on offense with a season-high 10 points and six rebounds off the bench, but the Gophers could not handle Illinois inside.
The 6-5 Rubin scored a layup off an offensive rebound for Illinois' first basket, setting a tone for the game. Though the Illini led for much of the first half, they could never stretch the margin beyond four points, and the half ended in a 35-35 tie.
A 10-4 run early in the third quarter gave the Gophers a 45-41 lead, their largest of the game. Sissoko was hurt tumbling backward in a tangle for a rebound. She finished with nine points and five rebounds.
"It was hard to see her go down, because we were already down a few people,'' said Gophers guard Gadiva Hubbard, who had 11 points. "We just had to stick together.''
Hubbard lamented the Gophers' inability to make open shots in the third quarter, when they shot 36%. Whalen wasn't happy with the defensive breakdowns she saw throughout the game. The Illini bested the Gophers 15-4 on second-chance points.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.