Coming off its first home loss of the conference season, Minnesota's schedule did them no favors as the team faced a road test against one of the toughest opponents in the Big Ten. Following a similar script to Sunday, the Gophers' offense looked out of sync in a loss.
Shooting 31.7 percent from the field, a short-handed Minnesota (11-10, 5-6 Big Ten) fell to No. 19 Illinois (16-5, 8-2 Big Ten) 59-51 in Champaign, Illinois. While the Gophers' defense kept the game competitive, they could not muster enough scoring to keep up with the Fighting Illini, who move into a tie for first place in the Big Ten.
"We didn't back down, we kept coming at them," head coach Richard Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "Disappointing that we lost, but certainly a lot of positives to draw from."
Much like their 70-52 defeat against Michigan State on Sunday, the Gophers got out to a sluggish start offensively. Over a five minute period in the middle portion of the half, Minnesota scored just one field goal, missing its first seven 3-point attempts to begin the evening. The Gophers shot 8-32 (.250) in the first half.
Fortunately for Minnesota, Illinois suffered from similar offensive struggles. After junior Trent Frazier made back-to-back threes to give the Fighting Illini a 17-11 lead, they scored only one field goal themselves over the six minutes.
During the Illinois drought, Minnesota used a 9-2 run to take the lead, punctuated by an and-1 from freshman Tre' Williams who started in place of redshirt junior Payton Willis. Willis was inactive with a shoulder injury. However, Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn scored five unanswered points in the period's final minute to give his team a 24-20 lead at intermission.
In stark contrast to the first 20 minutes, both teams came out of the locker room scorching hot to start the second half, combining for 10 points in the first two minutes, but the momentum only lasted for the hosts. Illinois rattled off eight straight points, part of a 13-2 run as the Fighting Illini started the half 7-8 from the floor.
The Gophers showed resolve in the face of a 41-28 deficit, going on a 7-0 run. However, they were put in a bind when redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr picked up his fourth personal foul with 11:09 remaining. With Willis unavailable, freshman Bryan Greenlee, who entered the contest averaging 2.5 minutes per game, was thrust into the game.
"It's like with Michigan State and with the Iowa game and you're down Payton," Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "In those two games we had no shot. At least in this game, because our defense was really good, we had a shot."
Soon after Carr, Cockburn picked up his fourth personal foul for Illinois. While each team had one of their premier players on the bench, the game returned to the form of the first half. Neither side scored over a three and a half minute period while the Minnesota failed to hit a shot from the field for over six minutes.
Facing long odds down 10 points with under five minutes remaining, Minnesota mounted one last comeback effort with another 7-0 run and eventually cut Illinois's lead to 52-51 with 1:49 remaining. However, The Fighting Illini closed the game out at the free throw line.
"Down the stretch, we seemed to foul, they didn't," Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "That just totally changed the game."
Sophomore Daniel Oturu was the only Gopher to finish in double-digits with 20 points. He also added eight rebounds and three blocks. Senior Alihan Demir scored all eight of his points in the second half while Carr contributed seven points and nine rebounds.
Only five players scored for Illinois but four finished in double-figures. Senior Andres Feliz led the charge with 17 points and Cockburn put up a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu also scored 13 points and Frazier added 10 of his own.
Minnesota has six days off to recover and plan for their rivals to the East as Wisconsin will come to The Barn on Wednesday, Feb. 5.
"We have to get back to work," Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "We have to get better. We have a young team."