Short-handed Illini basketball can’t run with Gophers

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  • Illinois' Jaylon Tate (1) attempts to save the ball from going out of bounds during the game against Purdue at State Farm Center on Jan. 21, 2015. The Illini won 66-57.

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Illinois played hard at Minnesota but sputtered in the second half and ran out of gas Saturday afternoon.

The Gophers (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten) won their second conference game of the season, 79-71, over an Illinois squad (13-8, 3-5 Big Ten) that had a tough time keeping up due to its depleted roster and limited bodies.

Since Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were sidelined again with injuries, Illini head coach John Groce essentially used a seven-man rotation against Minnesota. The Gophers were only up 33-30 at halftime, but turned up the intensity in the second half, and the short-handed Illini couldn’t respond.

Led by Andre Hollins, the Gophers broke off an 18-3 run midway through the second half, out-rebounding the Illini in the process. Second-chance points haunted the Illini, as Maurice Walker anchored the Gophers’ inside effort with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Five of Walker’s rebounds came on the offensive end, and Hollins finished with 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

I wrote before the game that Minnesota was a desperate team coming off several gut-wrenching losses, and it played like it. The Gophers turned up the full-court pressure the whole game, making the Illini work for each possession. Groce’s squad handled the press pretty well for the first thirty minutes, but you could tell they became tired and a step slow as Minnesota pulled away.

The Gophers started to grab more than their share of loose balls, get easy buckets in transition and stifle the Illini on defense. While Hollins, Walker and Carlos Morris (16 points) extended the Minnesota lead, the Illinois offense began to stagnate in the final 10 minutes. And even though the Illini shot well from three (11-for-24), they had a tough time converting two-point field goals, making just 12-of-37 shots from inside the arc. Three-point shooting will usually be a big part of the Illini’s successes, but they simply have to convert more easy looks if they want to win.

Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn carried the Illini again with 18 points each, and point guard Jaylon Tate had a nice game with 11 points, nine assists and no turnovers. Center Nnanna Egwu’s stats weren’t amazing, but you could tell he was working hard on both sides of the ball.

Illinois didn’t get much offensive production out of Leron Black (two points), but he grabbed nine rebounds, once again displaying a nose for the ball that Illini fans will love for the next three years. Backup center Maverick Morgan also was active with seven points and four rebounds off the bench.

But the Illini still fell short, and it was a frustrating game in the sense that the outcome might have been different with a healthy roster. It’s just so hard to replace Rice’s 17.2 points per game, and you have to think he could have prevented some of Minnesota’s second-half offensive rebounds too. And though Cosby has had his share of shooting struggles this season, he would have contributed with defense and rebounding for sure. Perhaps most importantly, a full roster might have kept Illinois from wearing down as the game went on.

But college basketball isn’t a game of what-ifs; it’s a game of absolutes. Minnesota improved in the second half; Illinois regressed, and the Illini’s road to the NCAA tournament got that much tougher. It’s a shame that we’ll never know what the 2014-15 Illini could have accomplished with a healthy team the entire year.

But Groce isn’t giving up on this season, and no one else should either. A much-needed week off awaits Illinois before both Penn State and Rutgers visit Champaign. Those two games are very winnable, and the hope is Rice and Cosby will return soon after.

Illinois didn’t give up on Saturday, even when the game was all but decided. Groce got every ounce of effort from his players as they extended the game with full-court defense and fouls in the final minutes, making the Gophers work to put them away. A comeback was unlikely, but that didn’t matter to Groce.

They’ll have to treat the rest of the season the same way. An NCAA tournament bid may seem like a long-shot right now, but I don’t doubt the Illini will fight to the end.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.