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Illinois deals blow to Minnesota’s tournament hopes

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers suffered the biggest blow to their NCAA tournament hopes Wednesday night with an embarrassing 62-49 loss to Big Ten bottom feeder Illinois.

If there was ever a game in which Richard Pitino’s team could afford to sleepwalk through most of the first half, this appeared to be it. Illinois’ shooting was atrocious to open the game, especially from inside the three-point line.

But the Gophers (17-10, 6-8) didn’t awaken until they were already trailing by double digits late in the second half.

Andre Hollins scored a team-high 15 points for Minnesota but shot just 4 for 13 from the field. Junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who had 18 points in a critical win last week at Northwestern, was in foul trouble and struggled with just three points on 1-for-5 shooting.

Hollins and Mathieu, who had led Minnesota in all of its Big Ten wins this season, couldn’t help their team overcome 15 turnovers and shooting 37 percent from the field, including 4 for 25 from three-point range.

Illinois (15-12, 4-10) went from being ranked earlier in the season to one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball. The Illini had lost 10 of 11 games entering Wednesday’s matchup, including eight straight at one point.

But Minnesota was outscored 22-8 to start the second half and trailed 46-35 after a dunk by Kendrick Nunn, who finished with 19 points, including 5-for-7 shooting from three-point range.

With no shot at the postseason, Illinois might have played spoiler to the Gophers’ NCAA tournament chances. Pitino’s team entered Wednesday with a No. 34 RPI and a No. 4 strength of schedule in the country.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and’s Jerry Palm both had the Gophers as a No. 10 seed, which means they were on the safer side of the bubble.

Not anymore.

Minnesota will need to win two of its last four Big Ten regular-season games just to get to 8-10, and its final stretch is as tough as it has been all season, starting Saturday at Ohio State. The last three games are against Iowa at home, Michigan on the road and Penn State at home.

The Gophers jumped to a 14-3 lead while holding Illinois to 1-for-10 shooting from the field to start. But things went downhill offensively for them once Mathieu picked up his second foul with 11:45 left.

Illinois caught fire from three-point range (6 for 9 in the first half) to outscore Minnesota 21-13 with Mathieu on the bench and pull within 27-24 at halftime.

Hollins had eight points on 2-for 8-shooting in the first half. He couldn’t provide a spark moving to the point guard spot because he was settling for jump shots.

Mathieu committed his first two turnovers of the game on consecutive possessions to begin the second half. He clearly couldn’t shake off the rust after sitting most of the first half in foul trouble.

Meanwhile, Illinois carried momentum into the second half with an early 8-0 run to take a five-point lead.

The Gophers committed five turnovers and shot 2 for 7 from the field in the first five minutes of the second half to fall behind.

Mo Walker, who had 10 points, gave Minnesota a 35-34 lead with 13:05 remaining, but Illinois used a 12-0 run to take control again and pull away for good.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

Robert Williams

Sports Editor at the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Williams worked prior as the Sports Editor in Perham for the Focus, a Forum Communications newspaper, from 2010-14. 

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