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Gophers battle but fall short at No. 19 Illinois

Another tough, close loss for the Gophers.

A 59-51 road loss for the Gophers won't do them any favors in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, but to say the road loss wasn't close would be a lie. 

Neither team shot well as Minnesota connected on only 31.7% from the field (19-60), including just 3-19 from three, while Illinois hit on only 33.3% of its shots (3-15 from three). 

Daniel Oturu led the Gophers with 20 points and eight rebounds but he didn't get any help from starting guards Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for 13 points on 5-23 shooting, including a dismal 2-11 from three. Kalscheur fouled out and Carr battled foul trouble all game. 

The loss drops the Gophers to 11-10 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten. 

Among the shortcomings

Shooting. The Gophers had their lowest-scoring first half of the season against Michigan State on Sunday, scoring just 22 points on 9-32 shooting. Against Illinois, they scored 20 points on 8-32 shooting. Coach Richard Pitino has talked about the need for consistency, but that’s probably not what he had in mind. They were a little better in the second half, going 10-28, but that’s still pretty bad. And after a 5-28 performance from three against the Spartans, a putrid 18%, they went just 3-19, an even worse 16%. It’s tough to beat any team doing that.

Backcourt play. It’s probably not fair to single out the guards on a night most of the team played subpar, but they left a lot left to be desired. Carr scored 47 seconds into the game then missed his next seven shots, finishing 3-12 from the field, while Kalscheur was just 2-11. Kalscheur fouled out and Carr fouled on a three pointer for the second game in a row; they combined for just one trip to the free-throw line, going 1-2. 

BJ Greenlee, spelling Carr, nearly turned the ball over twice in less than five minutes. Throw in Tre’ Williams, and you’ve got a combined stat line of 7-33, 2-12 from downtown, 3 assists, and 6 turnovers. Andres Feliz, meanwhile, who had scored in double-figures just twice in the new year, outplayed all of them, finishing with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench for the Illini. 

Offensive flow. Minnesota went more than 16 minutes without an assist to start the game, finishing with just one in the first half. They managed to triple that in the second half, for a final total of 4 assists against 12 turnovers, a laughably bad 1:3 assist-to-turnover ratio. The lack of precision on offense was evidently something Pitino noticed, too, as he called his final timeout with 25 seconds left on the shot clock and 1:25 left in the game after Carr had just gotten the ball across half court and he didn’t like the set-up. Kind of bizarre, but fitting based on the team’s performance on that end.

And the good

Defense. Illinois came into the game having won six in a row and gone over 70 points in three of their last five games, shooting 44%, 55%, and 50%, respectively, over their last three. The Gophers held them to just 59, well under their season average, locking up star guards Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier to the tune of a combined 8-25 shooting. Kalscheur and Carr do deserve special credit there, but overall it was a solid team defensive performance.

Resilience. Against a very good Illini team, tied for first in the Big Ten and sporting a 12-1 mark at home, Minnesota battled until the very end. It looked like things could get ugly down 11 early in the second half, but a few good moves from Oturu, a big three from Carr, and eight points from Alihan Demir cut the lead to just 52-51 with 1:49 remaining. Two questionable calls on Demir and Kalscheur gave Illinois three points at the free-throw line in the final 1:30, and some unlucky rolls on the offensive end doomed them, but a Gophers team of past years might’ve lost by 20, and that’s something which should pay dividends as the season continues. 

Isaiah Ihnen. The Gophers’ highest-rated freshman, a 6-9 native of Germany, Ihnen had logged just 12 minutes in Big Ten play after battling injuries at the start of the year. But he came off the bench early in both halves against Illinois, hitting a three, playing active on defense, and even getting an inbounds pass drawn up for him (he airballed the shot, but still). He ultimately got 17 minutes on the court, and though they weren’t the highest-quality minutes, his presence was a good sign given both his talent and the fact that Pitino has been so hesitant to spell his starters. That said, it remains to be seen whether this was a one-off or a sign of things to come.

The Gophers have five days off before facing Wisconsin next Wednesday. The border battle will tip from Williams Arena at 8 p.m.

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