For everyone who coming into tonight's game was wishing the Gophers had played one or two true road games in the non-conference schedule, you may have been right. The Gophers battled back from a 10 point halftime deficit to have a lead and the opportunity to ice it from the free throw line. But whether it was the pressure of trying to win in a hostile environment or fatigue or just a case of "you can't make them all" it wasn't enough and the Gophers dropped to 0-1 in the Big Ten. This one stings because it was our game to finish, twice, and we just couldn't notch what would have been a huge win.
Thinking back this game was a tale of three halves, kind of.
The first half the Gophers were slow, sloppy and shot 25% from the floor. Julian Welch and Ralph Sampson combined to shoot 2-12 and the Gopher bench shot 2-10. Meanwhile Meyers Leonard, Joseph Bertrand and Brandon Paul combined for 29 and it looked like a route was one. Amazingly the Gophers were still in the game for much of the half due to the 10 Illini turnovers. Then it was our turn with turnovers in the final minute as the Illini pushed the lead to 13 before Rodney Williams banked a three to keep it at 10.
The second half Gophers played great team defense and slowly overcame a 13 point hole with 13:20 to go. Just when I said the words out loud, "This one is over." the Gophers started forcing turnovers that led to points. The group the sparked the comeback included Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Elliott Eliason. It started with a 10-0 run sparked by those guys and from there Julian Welch and Ralph Sampson took over for the Gophers. The Gophers slowly worked their way to a late lead. In fact it was a two-point lead with 15 second left and a one-on-one opportunity for Julian Welch to ice the game. If you watched the game you know that he missed the front end, Illinois tied it and we move on to the third half.
The OT periods were not pretty. We struggled to score and eventually Illinois flexed. We did manage to have the ball, tied in the final seconds of OT-1 and Welch decided to take a shot with 15 seconds left giving Illinois the ball and a chance to win it. They missed and we went to double-OT where we got blitzed.
This was so frustrating because we had a chance to win. Not the kind of "chance" where if we nail a late three we win or the kind of "chance" where if a call or two goes our way we win. This was one where we had ball in the hands of an 87.5% free throw shooter. I'm not pissed, just sad. Of course there were missed shots throughout the game, especially in the 1st half. There were some bad turnovers and defensive breakdowns. All of which were crucial to winning a close game. Would have been nice to have this win.
With all of that said there were a few things I liked, after the break.
Team Defense - this was easily the best defense I have seen the Gophers play since maybe last November. If we can hold a Big Ten team like Illinois to 64 on their home floor, we'll win some Big Ten games.
Elliott Eliason - the kid is tough. He isn't terribly skilled but he played great defense on Meyers Leonard down the stretch and in OT.
Julian Welch - I know he missed the free throws but when a basket was needed he was the guy to get it. He is slowly turning into our offensive go-to guy.
Austin Hollins - was his usual solid self. I thought he was great on defense and effective on offense.
Free throw shooting - in spite of the KEY miss, we did shoot 16-18 from the line. You won't lose many games when you shoot 88.9% from the line.