Published February 10, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS – Tubby Smith spoke softly at the podium, again lamenting costly turnovers and bad decisions by his once-surging team.
Removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes, the Minnesota coach wondered out aloud whether he'd have to bring in psychological help for his struggling players.
Tyler Griffey capped a terrific week for Illinois with 16 points, and the Fighting Illini went 11 for 23 from 3-point range to beat the No. 18 Golden Gophers 57-53 on Sunday.
"The same issues we had before, as far as taking care of the basketball," Smith said. "That's something that's a real concern. We keep talking about it and working on it."
Three days after Griffey's buzzer-beating layup gave Illinois (17-8, 4-7 Big Ten) a victory over No. 1 Indiana, Tracy Abrams swished a step-back 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to stretch the lead over Minnesota to four. For all the good defense the Gophers played early in the game, they didn't guard the perimeter against a team that relies heavily on that outside shooting.
When the Gophers (17-7, 5-6) won 84-67 at Assembly Hall last month, they held the Illini to 3-for-24 shooting from 3-point range.
"We knew it was going to come," said Austin Hollins, who led Minnesota with 16 points. "We've just got to get out there."
D.J. Richardson had 13 points and Brandon Paul added 10 points for the Illini, who ended a 10-game losing streak on the road against ranked Big Ten teams. Their last such win was three years ago at Wisconsin.
Trevor Mbakwe had 13 points and 10 rebounds but four of his team's 13 turnovers, none more costly than with 50 seconds left and Illinois leading 54-53.
Double-teamed down low, the sixth-year senior pivoted and threw a two-handed pass across the court that sailed out of bounds. Abrams scored on the next possession, and Hollins air-balled a 3-pointer after that.
"It was a bad pass, I guess," Mbakwe said, adding: "A couple of bad mistakes down the stretch, and that was the game."
The Gophers played without senior forward Rodney Williams, who hurt his left shoulder in a collision in practice on Saturday. The injury kept him out of a game for the first time in nearly three years. That forced Smith into some awkward lineup combinations, and the backups again struggled to establish a rhythm or avoid stagnant, sloppy possessions. Even when most or all of the starters were in, the offense was disheveled.
Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman combined to shoot 3 for 18 from the floor.
Elliott Eliason, who filled many of Williams' minutes, had 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He swished a mid-range jumper with 2:22 left to pull the Gophers within one point.
But the Gophers, who led by as much as 13-2 and 26-14 in the first half, truly lost the game in the final minutes before the break. They found themselves trailing 31-30 at after a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Richardson, his third in the final four minutes of the half. That fueled a 20-4 run by the Illini that didn't end until a dunk by Mbakwe well into the second stanza, ending a skid of more than 7½ minutes by the Gophers without a basket.
When the Gophers aren't getting any momentum on offense, their half-court struggles seem to snowball. So has this season, after such a strong start.
"I prefer the quicksand analogy," Eliason said.
The Illini didn't make a shot from the field until 9½ minutes were gone in the game, when Nnanna Egwu's baseline jumper bounced off the rim and dropped in.
But Richardson made consecutive 3-pointers from the same place on the left wing on fast breaks that developed from rebounds of tough missed shots by the Gophers, and then Sam McLaurin held his spot in the lane as 6-foot-10, 290-pound Maurice Walker powered past him for a basket.
The charge was called, and Illini coach John Groce was so happy he gave McLaurin a bear hug at the timeout. Paul found space in the lane for a layup right after that, and suddenly the Illini were within two at 26-24.
"We want to play up and down. You're not going to win scoring 53 points," Smith said.